Having wandered out of the Piney Woods of East Texas, Dr. McDonald received a BS and MS in Floriculture and a Ph.D. in Horticulture all from Texas A&M University. After being educated beyond his intelligence, he is now a Clinical Assistant Professor of Ornamental Horticulture. His area of research is selecting and developing landscape plants for sustainable landscapes.

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Out There Plants
by Garry V. McDonald       #Misc   #Unusual   #Vegetables

Teosinte is a wild ancestor of modern corn and produces edible grain, although not anything like regular maize. Teosinte flowers late in the summer so it is dicey if the ears will mature before frosts occur in most temperate zones.

At the risk of being a little too outré, I grew some plants that are not the usual garden suspects. These are plants known in the business as “straight species,” and are closer to wild types and not grown in normal suburban gardens. Give these plants a shot once you get tired of the standard garden fare.

(Zea mays var. parviglumis)

Teosinte is a vernacular name given to several Zea species and botanical varieties, all progenitors of modern maize and native to Mexico and Central America. The variety I grew came from the Balsas River Valley in south-central Mexico, which is thought to be the center of corn’s domestication more than 9,000 years ago. I’ll admit the plants weren’t the most ornamental species I’ve ever grown, but they were definitely conversation pieces and I was able to bring samples to one of my classes for show-and-tell (students need to know where their food comes from). This variety is a short-day plant, meaning they did not start flowering until September and can be hard to get ears to ripen if autumn arrives too early. Seed need to be soaked in warm water overnight before sowing to aid germination. To ensure success, I started transplants in May and set out in early June. The plants “tiller,” or throw up multiple stems, forming a dense clump unlike modern corn, which has been reduced to a single stalk and an exact number of ears depending on the cultivar. Unfortunately they had all the usual corn pests, which were a pain. The “ear” on this teosinte is only about 1 inch long with triangular hard kernels. Off the wall maybe, but was fun to grow and interesting to show visitors.

Mt. Pima tobacco is native to the mountains of western Mexico and has beautiful rosy-pink flowers that are fragrant in the evenings. • This native tobacco is used by the Santo Domingo pueblo in New Mexico for rain ceremonies.

(Nicotiana tabacum)

I don’t roll my own or countenance smoking, but I thought it would be interesting to grow tobacco, traditionally used by indigenous people because of the large bold foliage and fragrant night-scented flowers. Ornamental flowering tobacco is commonly a hybrid of Nicotiana alata, N. langsdorfii, or N. sylvestris bred to be so short and compact that there is little character or substance left to make an impact in the garden. I grew two heirloom varieties: one was a selection from the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico traditionally used in rain ceremonies and the other form used by locals from the Mount Pima area of the western Chihuahua region of northern Mexico. The variety from Mount Pima turned out to be a winner, with beautiful pink-toned flowers produced over a long period over the growing season. I did cut the plants back about midsummer when they started to go to seed and the rejuvenated plants re-flowered until I finally pulled the plants in October. The extract from tobacco leaves is considered a powerful nicotine-based insecticide, which may be true, but I finally pulled the plants because caterpillars kept eating the leaves … go figure. The Santo Domingo variety didn’t perform as well, although the white flowers were beautiful and the evening fragrance was sweet. I went in with transplants in June and they quickly bolted and never produced the large velvety leaves I was expecting. I shall try again next season, possibly direct seeding. Both types produced a zillion seed so I have seed for next year or give to friends.

Small in stature, this chili pepper native to south Texas and Mexico packs a wallop when it comes to heat.

Chiltepin pepper
(Capsicum annuum var. glabrisuculum)

This chili pepper is one I collected years ago growing under a mesquite tree in the Texas Hill Country. The fruit are tiny, but can pack a big wallop, coming in at 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville units, which is chili-head speak for pretty dang hot. Perennial in its native haunts, most of us will have to grow it as an annual. Mine often reseed from year to year and I find they tend to make better plants if left to their own devices. Of course they never come up exactly where I want them, so I always start some transplants to set out. They need warm soil to germinate so I usually break out the heating mat for this one along with the other peppers. The handsome plants are compact with very dark green foliage and ornamental small, round, bright red fruit. Protected in mild areas, they may overwinter and are useful for Christmas decorations. Used in cooking, a little bit goes a long way, but I like them for flavoring soups and chili and also to make a vinegar-pepper sauce. Some folk will even roast them over a mesquite wood fire to give them a smoky flavor. There are many other pepper species that are ornamental as well as useful. My tabasco (Capsicum frutescens) pepper plants grow 4 feet tall and are as pretty as any garden annual or perennial when full of fruit in the fall.

(possibly Petunia axillaris x P. integrifolia)

This unimproved variety of garden petunia has been in my family for several generations.

I have no idea where this particular petunia came from. It’s always been a part of my life and one of the earliest plants I remember. They came up all over my grandmother’s rose beds, possibly originally from my great-grandmother, who I understand was a keen gardener. As a young child I loved the violet-flowering forms and pulled up the white-flowering forms. Over time, I inadvertently and unknowingly selected a line of highly scented violet-flowering forms that would survive mild winters. Time passed and I wasn’t around to thin the herd so the white-flowering forms re-emerged. More time passed and I thought they had died out completely, when a couple of years ago, some long-dormant seed must have gotten exposed and sprouted. Most were pale violet to lilac but still fragrant. I couldn’t find any seed, so I collected cuttings and brought them back and put them out in a petunia trial I have planted at our research center. Last fall I couldn’t find any seed and forgot to get cuttings before an unexpected freeze, so I assumed I’d lost them again. I can’t explain it, but by some quirk of nature, and after some autumnal rain this past season, petunias emerged. Imagine my surprise when I discovered violet flowers along with pure white flowers. So it looks like I’m back in business.

The gardening life is full of surprises. Other plants I’ve grown in the past that are kind of out there but ornamental included maroon and white cotton, purple-leaved sugarcane, and beans spotted like a palomino horse.


A version of this article appeared in a February 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Garry V. McDonald.


Posted: 01/30/18   RSS | Print


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