andy brand’s passions: from rare epimedium to butterfly-sustaining weeds

andy brand favoritesANDY BRAND of Broken Arrow Nursery is in a position any gardener would envy: He can get his hands on practically any plant–even the rarest ones that haven’t come to market yet. So when there is no barrier to access, what does a plant-mad gardener fall in love with most of all? Epimedium, for one. Oh: and weeds.

Andy is nursery manager of Broken Arrow in Hamden CT, a destination nursery with an extensive retail operation plus a giant mail-order catalog of unusual things. His 25-year-old personal Epimedium collection includes more than 150 kinds, with other shade treasures such as Solomon’s seal, or Polygonatum, and some lookalikes also on his radar.

Broken Arrow, where he has worked for 25 years, is known for unusual things: “Especially if it’s variegated, dwarf, or has contorted branches, or there’s something that’s not quite looking right about the plant”–in the very best way, of course–Andy says you’ll find it there. Plants with an irresistible twist.

Andy, who has been president of the Rhododendron Society in Connecticut, and founded the state’s butterfly association, began his career in a sterile tissue-culture lab propagating plants, but quickly knew that wasn’t for him. “I needed to be outdoors, around plants, with my ears and eyes open for things that are flying by. From rare and unusual to our local natives—I love it all,” he says.

We talked rarities and native butterflies and yes, even desirable weeds, on my latest radio program (listen in now, and/or read on).

broken arrow sale at my garden aug. 16

plant saleYOU MAY RECOGNIZE the name Broken Arrow as the nursery that has for years set up a giant rare-plant sale in my driveway (above) at all my Garden Conservancy Open Days. They’ll be here again Saturday August 16 (details on the day) and Saturday September 20, my two remaining public events. I’ll be speaking at Broken Arrow, about a half-hour south of Hartford CT, on Sunday August 24 (ticket information). If you’re coming to Open Day, you can pre-order from Broken Arrow and they’ll bring you what you want; call the nursery at (203) 288-1026 for details on availability. Their mail-order season will resume at the beginning of September on an updated website; retail continues daily at the nursery, except holidays.

my q&a with broken arrow’s andy brand

Q. I know that it might sound odd to people that someone exposed to the rarest collector plants and visiting great gardens as part of his work would also have a passion for some weeds, as I mentioned. Which ones, and why, and how does that work in your garden, practically speaking?

A. When I lecture, and show slides, and try to encourage people to leave some weeds in the garden, I get a lot of raised eyebrows. But with many of our native butterfly species, their host plants, that their caterpillars will feed on, are some of our weeds, so we rip them out. At the same time though we may be ripping out food plants for some of the most beautiful native butterfly species.

By Andy BrandA couple of examples: Violets, and white and red clover—things people don’t want in their lawns. Violets are one of, if not the only, host plant for group of butterflies called the fritillaries.

Q. Violets! I know ants move them around.

A. Right, they eat the eliasome that is attached to the seed, and move the seed around (which they don’t eat).

Q. And then the fritillaries enjoy the leaves?

A. Yes, the female flies around, finds a patch of violets, lays her eggs and then the caterpillars feed on the foliage typically at night. You rarely see them; they’re usually during the day tucked underneath the leaf litter.

With clovers: Not only are they a great nectar source for the adult flying butterflies, but species like the clouded and orange sulphurs—the yellow common butterflies people commonly see—they will lay eggs on these two species of clover. [Common sootywing larvae and clouded sulphur butterfly in Andy’s garden, below.]

By Andy BrandQ. So now I have an excuse, or explanation, on why my lawn is mostly non-grass. [Laughter.]

A. The one plant that raises the most eyebrows when I mention it is probably stinging nettles. If you’ve ever walked through it or brushed up against it by accident, you don’t forget it right away. But there are at least four species of butterflies that lay their eggs on stinging nettles, and the caterpillars feed on it.

Q. What’s your home garden like?

A. It’s woodsy, with some open areas, and I let one section of it kind of do its own thing with grasses and goldenrods and so on, and I cut that down once in the fall. It’s a mix of natives and non-natives, and nectar plants and host plants and weeds.

I love weeding, but there are certain ones where I’m not disappointed when the weed breaks off and leaves the roots, so it will come back. I know a butterfly or something will use it.

photo by Andy BrandQ. So moving away from natives insects and native and wilder plants: How did the Epimedium bug bite? They’re not native. [Detail above: ‘Space Invaders,’ a Broken Arrow introduction.]

A. Growing up my parents had a big garden with Rhododendron and companion plants, and Epimedium are a great companion for them—they’re shade lovers that want part-shade to shade situations. So we had the more common red- and pale yellow-flowering forms, that flower in April.

I learned about Garden Vision in Massachusetts, and Darrell Probst and his breeding work, and became fascinated with the expeditions he went on to China and elsewhere, and all the amazing species he brought back and identified. I got hooked. If a new one pops up, I more than likely have to get it.

Q. I admit sometimes if you see them in a garden center in little pots, and they may not be in bloom, you could say, ”Seen one, seen them all,” because you really don’t know them in their glory.

A. They have a delicate, almost frail look when you first look at them—but they’re so tough and durable.

Q. They’re related to barberry–a much-loathed but very durable plant. [Laughter.]

A. And they’ll take not just shade but dry shade—I have the majority of my collection growing under 50- to 60-foot Norway spruce trees, that were planted years ago, and they do quite well once established. It’s amazing the drought they can tolerate.

The diversity of foliage, the flower types—and there are spreading varieties, and also clump-formers. There are deciduous species and evergreen ones, like some of the Chinese species.

The spring foliage is just amazing on some of them, with shades of maroon and red.

photo by Andy BrandQ. I love the ones with red rings around the edges of the new foliage.

A. Yes. One of my favorites is Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Bandit’ [above], a small, clump-forming plant with a distinct maroon-red ring around the emerging foliage, and then it eventually goes to green. Spectacular—even if it never flowered, and you just had it as a groundcover.

Q. They also really vary in scale, right?

A. There’s one called ‘Lilliputian,’ with 4-to-6-inches tall maximum with little white flowers, and there’s one that’s relatively new called ‘The Giant,’ and the foliage is 15 to 18 inches tall, but the flower scapes can be 3 to 4 feet.

It was one of those that when first released was very expensive and rare, going for at least $150 apiece.

An amazing diversity in sizes—and the flowers themselves: You can get little, bell-shaped flowers, to these massive, inch to inch-and-a-half spurred flowers that hang from the stalks. Incredible.

Q. And you have 150 kinds—which I have to say is a little obsessional. [Laughter.] And are they labeled?

A. Yes, and I even have a map of them.

Q. He’s got a map! Now how did I suspect that would be the answer? [Laughter.] I don’t have any that cost $150, but I did spend maybe $25 on some early on, for a little plant. And you’d wait, and it would start to grow…and what I found out eventually was that they like to be divided.

A. The spreading types I pretty much leave alone, but with the clump-formers, after a few years they definitely do seem to react in a good way to being lifted, and separated, split into smaller pieces. Sometimes the center may get somewhat woody, and in that case I will dig it up in springtime, or even after they have flowered, and up until the fall, even.

You just have to be a little careful in the fall that they’re settled in and have some mulch around them so they don’t frost-heave.

Q. You mentioned how they can handle dry shade, but nothing that was just uprooted wants to go without water, right?

A. I try to be careful that they get well-established, especially after fall divisions.

photo by Andy Brand Q. You also mentioned Polygonatum and Disporum–which are both sometimes called Solomon’s seals, and other common names. Do you mix these with your Epimedium? [Above: Polygonatum odoratum ‘Double Wide.]

A. It’s a more recent passion, and I do combine them. I realized that I was maxing out on Epimedium, and Polygonatum and Disporum and their relatives—Uvularia, for instance.

Q. I love the merrybells, or Uvularia. So for people who don’t know all these, describe them.

A. Polygonatums have arching stems, with whitish to greenish-white bells that hang from the leaf axils, followed by round fruits. Disporum also have blue fruits; fairy bells is another name for them.

They’re all great companions for the Epimedium, ferns and other shade-loving plants.

Q. There’s such a range of them.

photo by Andy BrandA. Polygonatum biflorum is one of our native species in the Northeast; P. humile is just 8-10 inches tall and makes a beautiful groundcover. There are some that get to 4 or 5 feet tall. A favorite of mine is Polygonatum macranthum [above], with very stout, rigid stems that don’t need staking.

Q. Is that an Asian species?

A. It is.There are some from North America, Europe and some from Asia, in diverse sizes and in the range of foliage and flowers. There are variegated forms that fit into Broken Arrow’s “rare and unusual” world, with beautiful foliage.

photo by Andy BrandQ. Do they clump, or run?

A. There are both kinds. For instance, P. humile [above] needs some space; you can easily get a patch in five or six years that can be 5 feet wide if it’s nice, rich, humusy soil. Some of the others spread relatively slowly.

Q. Where do you find all these plants for the nursery?

A. Truthfully, one f the best places is on the internet, like on Facebook. It is so fast now; someone shows a picture and you have to have it, and you send a message and start trading for things.

Q. Like baseball cards!

A. But you’re doing rhizomes and cuttings and things.

prefer the podcast?

photo by Andy BrandANDY BRAND of Broken Arrow Nursery was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The August 4, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX. [Above: Epimedium versicolor spring foliage.]

(All photos courtesy of Andy Brand.)

  1. Doreen says:

    Butterflies need all the help they can get! I have not seen one monarch in my yard in the Hudson Valley this year or last year. On Saturday I was thrilled to see a single tiger swallowtail on our butterfly bush. Several years ago, the bush would have been covered.

    We recently visited the Native Butterfly House at Project Native nursery and sanctuary in the Berkshires. I would recommend a visit as it was attractive and educational.

  2. Judy says:

    I would very much like to ask Andy why it is so hard to keep Rhododendrons alive in the Southeastern part of Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey. I have seen many older plant die in our area and have had a very hard time getting young plants from the nursery to thrive. Is the weather here perhaps to hot and humid and temperatures have warmed up? I have also tried to grow them in a very large planter on the roof of a building in New York City with large trees such as Maples and Redbuds. The trees are doing fine, and every one of the Rhodies died?

    Any thoughts?

    1. Andy Brand says:

      Rhododendrons and other members of the Ericaeous family can be finicky to grow. They perform best in woodsy, acid, well-drained soils. They detest heavy, clay soils. I have always had best luck getting rhododendrons to do well when they have been grown in he ground versus container grown plants. They seem to establish new roots faster. I would suggest giving Rare Find Nursery in Jackson, NJ and see what they suggest. They specialize in rhododendrons.
      As far as the rooftop plants I think it may be exposure issues in winter, particularly wind and sun since they have no protection from the deciduous trees growing with them at this time of year. Most broadleaf evergreens need some protection in the winter or need to planted in a protected location out of wind and scorching sun.
      I hope this helps some.

      Andy Brand

  3. helen says:

    If you can, visit the Broken Arrow nursery. The collection is amazing. I always think of Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Sherwood Forest as I drive down and down into the woods. It is tucked away in the forest. I love to just go look when I visit my daughter who lives nearby in CT. Sad to say, in a week they move to OH and I will no longer be able to look at Broken Arrow’s rare and unusual plant collection. Having them at your garden tour allows a lot of people to see some of their offerings.

  4. Nora Sirbaugh says:

    With our son now in Boston and us in NJ, it was just a matter of time before I persuaded my husband to detour to Broken Arrow on the way up. What a TREAT! You know you’ve found the real deal with them–real plant people. Everyone was helpful and well informed there. I too have the epimedium bug and acquired some rare and unusual treats from them this past spring. The plants are thriving in situ, and I can hardly wait to see them bloom! Wish we could come up for the Open Day, Margaret. The blog is a joy to follow. The best,

  5. Lorie says:

    Am so lucky to have a rare epimedium from Harlan Hamernik from when he owned Bluebird Nursery and shared, once a year, Harlan’s Surprises….small quantities of plants he’d discovered in foreign lands, but hadn’t propagated large numbers yet. I planted one right outside the front door that shares footspace with a Jap maple and another is sheltered by a boulder in a rather secret corner. They are treasures that I rejoice in seeing bloom every spring.

  6. lynn cavo says:

    I have to share the pangs of guilt I felt reading about your mostly weeds lawn, Margaret. I have decided I cannot live with creeping charlie any longer and plan to have it killed (yikes) by a reputable organic company (Organicare of Bloomfield, CT). Those patches of lawn will then be reseeded for fall growth. I have asked that the clover not be part of the “killing”. I only wish that it and violets were the problem. Is there anything good at all about the weed “creeping charlit” which literally creeps even into the garden beds?!?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.