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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Fried-egg plant not easy to find but worth the search


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It can now be said: Butterflies love fried eggs.

Before I get pounced on, I confess to using some humor.

I’m talking about the fried-egg plant, an incredible camellia relative. Just to add a little more horticulture humor, try looking up the fried-egg plant and you are sure to get a dozen recipes for this Southern delicacy. (Fried eggplant — get it?)

The fried-egg plant could use a public relations firm, not only for its common name but also to get it in every garden where it’s cold-hardy — zones 8 to 10 and possibly zone 7b.

Botanically speaking, the fried-egg plant is known as Polyspora axillaris and is in the Theaceae or camellia family.

It has gone through a few name changes, the most popular probably being Gordonia.

Those of you who have not seen it should imagine an 11-foot-tall tree-shaped evergreen with huge white camellia sasanqua-like blossoms covering the plant.

They can reach 15 feet tall.

These glorious blooms are made even more beautiful by the nectaring of the cloudless sulphur and long-tailed skipper butterflies.

The fried-egg connotation comes from the white petals surrounding the golden yellow stamens. The fried-egg plant is native to China but will be quite at home in your garden.

Every horticulturist and landscape designer promotes the idea of planting evergreen shrubs as the bones and necessary structure of the landscape, and correctly so.

A camellia relative like the fried-egg plant fills this need completely.

When you consider its size, you realize you can place it just about anywhere in the landscape where you would need a small tree.

Just like the camellia, the fried-egg plant needs acid soil that is fertile, moist and well drained. It also likes a typical camellia location when it comes to sunlight, in other words part sun or some shade. I’ll admit the plant is not the easiest to find, but it’s well worth the search. Garden centers specializing in camellias and mail-order nurseries are your best options.

Now is one of the best times to plant trees and shrubs, because fall allows the roots to get established and ready for spring growth and warm weather.

You won’t see the plants growing above ground in the fall, but those roots will continue to spread and develop.

Once you find your plant, consider combining it with repeat blooming azaleas like the Autumn Royalty of the Encore series, the award-winning Shishi Gashira, a terrific compact Camellia sasanqua, or surrounded by a cluster of hollies like Festive or Little Red.

It is simply amazing to see these large white blooms in the fall with an assortment of butterflies feeding on them, and you have a knockout combination. Start looking for your garden version of the fried-egg today.

Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.”

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