EVEN THOUGH I don’t live anywhere near St. Louis, one of my most-used and appreciated resources for plant information over many, many years has been the Missouri Botanical Garden, with its world-class offerings to gardeners both in person and online.
One feature I look forward to each year is the garden’s annual Plants of Merit list. I spoke recently with Daria McKelvey there about those standout varieties, from showy begonias to a summer-blooming small native tree with excellent fall color, just in time to guide my springtime plant shopping.
Daria is supervisor of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at Missouri Botanical, where she oversees indoor gardens, its Plant Doctor answer line, and a lot of the website features I rely on so much.
Read along as you listen to the April 11, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
plants of merit, with daria mckelvey
Daria McKelvey: Yes. Just this past week, a lot of them started popping out. So hopefully within the next month or towards the middle of the month, we’ll really start seeing all of our displays in just beautiful color.
Margaret: Yeah. It looks beautiful. So I hear, first of all, congratulations are in order, because you are one of two recipients of the American Horticultural Society’s Emerging Horticultural Professional Award. And it’s interesting, Sam Keitch from Pennsylvania Horticultural Society was just on the show a couple weeks ago, and he’s the other recipient.
Daria: Oh, awesome.
Margaret: So, bookends.
Daria: And thank you.
Margaret: Do you know each other?
Daria: We do not.
Margaret: Yeah, funny.
Daria: But that would be cool. We’ll maybe meet later in the year.
Margaret: Yeah. Well, congratulations. So was that a surprise? That’s a nice award to get.
Daria: Yeah. It quite was a surprise. I had no idea, and I’m actually even not sure who nominated me, so whoever did, thank you. I really appreciate it.
Margaret: Yes. So when we talked previously, months back, you described yourself to me as a “total plant nerd,” and I know you’re a transplant also from Texas, I believe, so where you’re gardening now is a very different place.
Daria: It is very different. I’m actually from the Western portion of the state near the panhandle, and the weather there—our average annual rainfall is 18 inches. It’s very hot. It’s windy and dry, and a lot of the stuff we grow here in St. Louis would not work elsewhere.
Daria: Yeah. So it’s been a very different growing environment, but also it’s been a great opportunity to learn so much just within the last couple of years of just expanding my garden knowledge.
Margaret: So you’ve been there since 2018 in St. Louis, I think. Yeah?
Margaret: And you went to school in Texas. I think you even taught at Texas Tech for a while. You worked at the USDA. So you’ve had other journeys within this kind of botanical world already, but this is a vast one. I mean the Kemper Center, it’s a lot going on [laughter]. You have a lot of things going on.
Daria: There’s a lot. Oh, there is. Where do I start? Yeah. So we have two sections, as you mentioned. We have our indoor section, which I oversee, so that includes our Plant Doctor desk and horticulture answer services, which are our email and phone services. So if you have gardening questions, you can contact us in person, or even if you’re in a different state, we get calls about gardening questions from all over the U.S., and also all over the world.
Right now, our indoor section is temporarily closed until later this year, but you can give us a call if you have a gardening question. We actually, I think for last numbers for 2019, before the pandemic, that year we answered over 18,000 gardening questions. [Above, the Kemper Center; photo by Steve Frank for Missouri Botanical Garden.]
Margaret: Oh, boy. Well, and I’ll give all the information about how people can reach out. So that’s the Plant Doctor answer service, is that right?
Margaret: Yeah. And then in the introduction, when I mentioned how I use the Missouri Botanical Garden resources all the time, and I have for many, many years, what I constantly do when someone tells me about a new plant, or when I’m going to write about a plant that I’m unfamiliar with, a lot of times what I do is I put the name of the plant, and the word, or the leters M-O-B-O-T—Mobot. So I put, “Petunia integrifolia Mobot,” or whatever Mobot. “Ruby chard Mobot.” And then what I end up getting is a page in your Plant Finder, which I believe you also oversee. It’s like an encyclopedia of plants, and I find it really, really helpful as a great introduction to the care and the traits of each plant.
Daria: Yeah. And I’m maybe slightly biased, but at the same time, it’s a fantastic resource. I mean, I used it even when I was in grad school, before I knew I was going to come here. So it’s just a really great thing to have, and I have a staff that helps write the profiles, and I’m constantly trying to take photos of what we have out in the garden. It’s just a really good resource to use.
And also people sometimes don’t know about our features on that. You can actually on our advanced search, towards the bottom, if you’re looking for let’s say a plant in Zone 6 that has pretty flowers and is a herbaceous perennial, you can put that in, and it’ll get you give you a list of plants that meet the growing needs that you need.
Margaret: Right. So you can really filter.
Margaret: Yeah. And so you can even filter for Plants of Merit [laughter].
Daria: Yes, you can.
Margaret: Which, I mean, it’s funny. I think of in Kew, of the Royal Horticultural Society in England, they have AGM—Award of Garden Merit, plants that they sort of give a seal of approval to. And so I sort of think of this as the only other such—I mean, I know there are more regional ones, but I feel like this is a sort of biggish one that you do as well, and so we can filter in the Plant Finder for some of those.
So I thought maybe we’ll have some fun and talk about some of those, because you’ve highlighted some plants that I really love. So I was glad to see them. I was like, “Yeah. Yay. Promote it!” So what, since the late 90s or something–how long has this been going on?
Daria: Yeah, I think it’s like 1998, 1999 is when it started, and it did used to be a little bit bigger, because it did involve leaders from local nursery industries and some other partners as well, and I sure what why it’s kind of shrunk. That was a little bit before my time.
But we’re keeping it going because it’s still a very good thing to look at, and so now it’s just the garden staff from different areas nominating plants that they have grown for a while and have said, “This plant is really great.” And hopefully one these days we can expand it out to get other opinions as well from outside, because I think that would be valuable as well. But just for right now, it’s just garden staff.
Margaret: Right. And so I loved that in recent years, I think it was last year and this year, well, this year… I love begonias, and not the basic wax begonia kind of thing, but some of the other begonias, and years ago when they first came out, I loved ‘Dragon Wing,’ which is just a big plant. You can put it in a big container [above, at Margaret’s], and it shows off all season long. It’s a great, reliable plant, and now you just shouted out ‘Canary Wing,’ which is a gold-leaf version [photo, top of page]. So tell us a little bit about that one, for instance—and you used it in the displays there last year and in recent years?
Daria: Yes. That was one of our hanging baskets. I want to say it was right in between our vegetable garden, and I mean, as you can see from the photo, it was just stunning—like perfect uniformity, and the chartreuse color really stood out against the red [flowers] there. Yeah, begonia are we use them not only in hanging baskets, also containers, too. They’re just so versatile around here.
Margaret: Right. I mean the ‘Canary Wing,’ like the ‘Dragon Wing,’ I mean, I don’t know. They must get to about what? Like 18 inches or…
Margaret: I mean, it’s a good-sized plant, and it’s almost shrubby. Do know what I mean? It’s dense. It’s like it’s not just a little wispy thing or anything.
Margaret: With the beautiful red flowers against that gold foliage. Yeah. And last year, I don’t know if you’ve personally grown, but ‘Gryphon’ [above]. Do you guys grow that one? Are you still growing that one?
Daria: Yeah, that was actually one of our indoor Plants of Merit. It’s actually sitting right outside my office.
Margaret: That’s what I was going to say. I grow it as a houseplant, and then I bring them out in the summer.
Margaret: Yeah. So how’s it doing for you?
Daria: It’s doing pretty good. It is definitely ready to go back outside to kind of get some nice sunlight and a little bit more humidity, but I was just looking at it before this, and the stems are super-succulent almost.
Daria: And I think I measured they were just under one inch in diameter.
Margaret: Yeah, that’s what people should know. They may see these, and these are ones that have… How would you describe the leaf shape? How is it like?
Daria: Oh, kind of…
Margaret: Exaggerated maple-y or something?
Daria: Yes, it’s very palmate, I guess.
Margaret: Yes, like hand like. O.K., good. And they tend to have a lot of silvery background, and then markings on it. So they’re very showing, and you might see them in the sort of annual department of your garden center at this time in spring, to be used as container plants or whatever, but if you carry it over, it eventually grows up into this thing with these trunks, so to speak.
Daria: Yeah, they’re thick.
Margaret: They’re thick like succulent-like. Really I have a lot of houseplants that are what I would call caudiciform, that have a structure, like a big thick base, a swollen base, or something that even when their dormant is present, is still alive, and that’s how these guys are. My begonia, my ‘Gryphon,’ and the other related ones that I have, they defoliate in the winter, in my conditions, in my house conditions, and then I withdraw water; I stop watering. But they have this structure. They’re like these sculptures. They’re hilarious.
Daria: Yeah. It’s really gorgeous when you look close. You’re like, “It’s just amazing.” You’re like, “I didn’t expect that to be there or the stems to grow that way.”
Margaret: Yeah. So I think that’s a kind of cool indoor-outdoor four-season plant. Yeah. So I was glad to see you shout that one out, too.
Daria: Another good indoor one, it’s not on the list this year, but I think it was nominated. It was ‘River Nile.’
Daria: It’s a rhizomatous begonia, and it has this sort of lime-chartreuse color again, but on the edge it’s like a dark purplish-red-brown kind of color.
Margaret: Oh. Oh, boy; I’m in trouble.
Daria: The leaves are also even ruffled and kind of crinkly. They’re rough, but I just love the color of that one, and it’s performed really well indoors.
Margaret: Oh, I’m going to have to look it up. I’ll look it up on the… “’River Nile’ begonia Mobot,” and I’ll look it up on the Plant Finder [laughter].
Daria: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
Margaret: And then I’ll see if I can find it in my stores here. Yeah, so speaking of great things for pots, because those are kind of great container subjects, I see you guys like elephant ears, Alocasia, and Colocasia.
Daria: Yes. I mean, I was looking at the list of what we have planted in the past, and you’re right. It’s so many. It’s just that there’s such great pieces to fill in an area, and, well, they do take up a decent amount of space, but just to add some texture, a little bit of foliage color, and they do really well in our area. We’ve grown them all throughout the garden. And even, I recall, I think it was last year, we even had one in our waterlily pools. [Above, Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii,’ a 2022 Plant of Merit.]
Daria: I think that was one of the darker-foliage colored ones, but there’s just so many that we’ve used as… Like I remember there were a planted entrance to our children’s garden. We’ve used them in as a planting in our annual trials, even in our display in front of the Climatron, the central access display, just in combinations with other plants. You can put them everywhere.
Margaret: And do you plant a lot of them in large containers, or do you put them in the ground, or both?
Daria: We do put them in the ground, and we treat them, of course, as annuals. We bring them in each year. We don’t really overwinter them. The only one, though, that has, there’s one called ‘China Pink,’ and it’s hardy in Zone 6 to 10, and we’re Zone 6, so it’s marginally hardy.
Margaret: Oh. Oh.
Daria: And we have this one out in what we call our climate garden. So we jokingly say that this is where our plants go to die [laughter], because we’re testing plants in Zones 7 to 8, stuff that’s way outside of our hardiness region, and seeing if they… Who knows? They might be able to stick around. And the ‘China Pink,’ I think it’s going on its third or fourth year.
Daria: At least it has survived three winters, and so we’re probably going to be taking that one out and moving it to another part of the garden to see if it still will thrive, but that’s one that potentially could make it here.
Margaret: Interesting, and so when you over wintered them, I mean, you have all kinds of incredible world-class facilities, but for regular folks, some of them are easier. Some of them make more of a big tubery kind of thing, and some of them less so. Some of them are a little easier or harder to overwinter. And I have a little more difficulty with certain ones—making them happy. I like the ones that are rock-hard. You can throw it in the basement kind of thing, like the old fashioned elephant ears, the sort of ubiquitous one.
But any other sort of tricks, or tips, or anything about? Do you pot them all, or what do you do? Because your digging them up, right?
Daria: Yeah. We’re digging them up, but we actually are limited on space, so we’re not able to really store many of them.
Margaret: Oh. Mm-hmm.
Daria: So if you do want to store them, it’s like you said, the typical dig them up after the first frost, let them dry down, and then put them in wood shavings, or peat moss, or something like that for storage.
Margaret: Right. But I mean, what’s great about them is that some of them, I mean, the leaf is just so bold, and now there’s all of these textures, and leaf colors, and so forth. So it’s really become quite a collectible.
Daria: Yeah. Actually, there is one that can be overwintered. Actually, we have it as a house plant, and it’s Alocasia, I think, amazonica ‘Polly’ [center, below].
Margaret: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Daria: Yeah. So sometimes we’ll… We have one specimen here indoors, and that one we might overwinter indoors as well, but…
Margaret: Yeah, it’s a funny one. I have had it. I have big pots of it for many, many years, and I bring it in, and it’s happy for a while, and then it says, “I’m going to sleep, Margaret. The heck with you.” [Laughter.] Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: And it’s a combination of temperature, and light, and who knows what? Day length, whatever. And then when it decides to, it says, “I want to wake up now, Margaret. Give me a drink.” Do you know what I mean? And it’s like you have to read these plants and get to know them, because it’s in each of our individual conditions it’s a different protocol, right?
Margaret: Your conditions and my… If we say, “Put it in the basement,” well, my basement is a different temperature and humidity than your basement and so forth.
Margaret: It’s experiments.
Daria: Absolutely. Actually, that’s two things I always tell people. Horticulture is there’s a lot of gray area for things, and just I’m like, “If we don’t know the answer, just try it.” Give it a shot and see what happens. Either way you learn something.
And sometimes people will say, “Oh, I can’t grow this. I have a brown thumb.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not that you don’t have a green thumb. It’s that each plant has its own personality, and just like each of us has our own likes and dislikes, and you’ve got to learn what that plant likes, and what it doesn’t like.”
Margaret: Yes, yes, definitely. One thing I have not really grown, and you have one that makes the list this year, on the Plants of Merit list, you have this flashy-looking ornamental pepper. I really haven’t gone for the ornamental pepper thing, but looking at that one, it’s called ‘Onyx Red,’ I think.
Daria: Oh, I love our ornamental peppers. If I had more space for a garden, that’s what I would be growing.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. So interesting. So here we are two keen gardeners, “plant nerds,” as you describe it, and yet I haven’t, and you do. O.K.
Daria: Yeah. So I mean, yeah. ‘Onyx Red’ was a really nice one. Again, if you ever look at the image on our Plant Finder database, you can see how well that grows. We usually plant them in our vegetable garden, and they kind of are an edge piece, or kind of line a bed, and sometimes they’re mixed in, but this one was just really just that dark purple it had. It took full sun and looked great all throughout the year.
Margaret: So the onyx is the dark purple foliage, and the red, ‘Onyx Red,’ is the red fruits [above]? Is that the-
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Daria: Yeah. Little red I guess berries, but, yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. It’s dramatic. I don’t know as far as… I looked for seeds after I saw it. I looked for seeds in case I can’t find it at the nursery. I thought maybe there would still be time to start it, and I saw a couple of places, Totally Tomato and T&T Seeds online. I did just a Google search trying to find it. I don’t know—you’ve probably already started your plants. They’re probably well along already, because you’re using…
Daria: Yeah, we start ours quite early, and actually I saw Harris Seeds had this one, too.
Margaret: Oh good, O.K.
Daria: Because actually this was an All-America Selections winner, I think, in 2018.
Margaret: Yeah. I was surprised not to find it at more places. That’s why I was wondering, and maybe it’s just so popular that it’s been bought out, and you know the run on seeds the last couple years.
Daria: Yeah. And there’s other ones that we’ve grown in our vegetable garden that I love, like there’s one called ‘Calico,’ and it has this kind of modeled leaf. The leaf is green, whitish not variegated but pretty close, and the purple flowers, and then red fruit. We also have one that has been grown a couple years called ‘Chinese Five Color.’ It grows a little bit taller, but the fruit looks like Christmas bulb lights, like tiny ones.
Margaret: Oh, wow.
Daria: And they change colors. So you’ll have one that they start out all purple, but then as they mature, they’ll be red, yellow, orange, and purple all on the same plant.
Margaret: Oh my goodness. Wow. Interesting. So ornamental peppers, so something to consider when we’re out shopping this spring for sure.
Daria: Yes, beautiful, beautiful. All so many different kinds of cool… There’s even one called ‘Medusa’ that’s got sort of the peppers are kind of elongated, but they’re all snake-like like ‘Medusa.’
Margaret: Cool. So we have maybe four minutes or so left. So I wanted to say there are one group of plants you didn’t have to convince me about to go shopping for, because I already have a crazy collection, are what I call voodoo lilies. That’s a loose common name, but you have Amorphophallus konjac on the 2022 list now. Who put that oddball forward for the honor? [Laughter.] Because it is an oddball.
Daria: It is, and actually, that was Travis [Hall] who was over at our bulb garden. He was the one you spoke to about the Fraser fir.
Margaret: Sure. Yes. Yes.
Daria: Yeah, so that was his nomination, and I was happy to see that one too, because the nominations don’t always have to be the pretty colorful stuff. It can be the unique stuff. And this, I mean, it’s a conversation piece. It does smell. Yes, it is a little stinky, but it’s just it’s really unique. It’s something you don’t normally see. And I mean, it just adds a really interesting element in your garden. I’m sure since you are a fan.
Margaret: Yeah. And they don’t always bloom for me, and the thing to tell you the truth, I have them, and I have a lot of different ones besides konjac, and then I have it’s sort of cousin. Sauromatum is another genus of, again, voodoo lilies, and underground are just these little bulbs. I don’t even know if they’re technically bulbs, or tubers, or what they are. But so they’re easy to put the dried-down pot in the cellar for the winter, and then bring it back up, and water them next year. And I make arrangements of pots of them, because they’re foliage is so great.
Daria: Ooh, yeah.
Margaret: They’re just gorgeous in the front of a vignette of mixed pots. Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: The way that the colocasias and the alocasias would be great for sort of more the background, the big… right?
Margaret: These guys do the same thing for me in the foreground. So I have lots of pots of them, and they’re just fun. So anyway, who knows? But you have so many interesting. I mean, one of my favorite trees, you shouted out the sourwood. Just quickly tell us about that guy.
Daria: Yeah. I mean, first of all, to see more of an ericaceous tree, that’s very unique, but I’m not sure who made that nomination, but it’s just a really nice… I love how the flowers kind of cascade down. It’s very dainty, and then, of course, the fall color is just amazing with all the variations in yellows and reds.
Margaret: Oxydendrum arboreum. Is that right? Did I get that right?
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s great, the sourwood. Yeah. I have one, an old one in the garden, and the fall color is spectacular.
So in the last couple of minutes, want to tell us anything about anything new for people to know about? I mean, I know a lot of people who are listening don’t live near you, although it might be a good place for a summer vacation to come visit.
Daria: Oh, absolutely.
Margaret: Anything going on, or any online events going on, or anything you want to tell us about?
Daria: Yeah, sure. So right now we’re in the full of spring, everything is blooming, starting to bloom right now, and our cherry blossoms just hit peak this week, and so you can view some of our photos on social media, if you can’t be here.
But if you do want to plan a trip to the garden, we always say the best kind of time, sweet spot, is the last week of April, first week of May. That’s when a lot of things are blooming at this time. And I mean, but anytime you come, there’s always going to be something interesting to see no… I mean, there’s so much to look at, so much.
Margaret: Yeah, yeah. An amazing place. And are you at home? Are you doing a community garden plot at home still at your apartment or your home?
Daria: Actually, the garden has a small community garden plot, so some of the staff get to grow things.
Margaret: Oh. Cool.
Daria: I’m growing a couple of cool-season vegetables like onions, arugula, which is one of my favorites, peas, I think lettuce, and I was going to try some carrots. They didn’t do too good last year, but we’ll give them a second try.
And I split up half my bed, because it’s very small, but I did half with cool-season veggies, and then the rest with ornamental colorful stuff. So my tulips bloomed last week.
Margaret: Oh, my.
Daria: Yeah, they popped up pretty quick, and then I have some hyacinths and coleus, but I do have a few more tulips that are getting ready to bloom as well. So I live in an apartment, so it’s always nice to have a little plot to call my own, but then, of course, I have the garden as well, so I claim that as my garden as well.
Margaret: Yeah. Pretty nice. Pretty nice. Well, Daria McKelvey, I’m so happy to speak to you, and I hope we’re going to speak again, and I want to hear what’s going on later in the season, too. So thank you so much for making time. I know you’re swamped. It’s April.
Daria: Yeah. Thank you for having me. It’s been great talking with you.
(Photos from Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder except as noted.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 11, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).