July 22, 2010


Honestly, when have you ever seen a specimen like this ?

Guy walks into the tree and shrub department with a photo of his front yard and says he wants the most unusual tree we've got, cost not an issue.  Sold him an Acer 'shishigashira ' or  as its dubbed  ' The Lion Head '  Japanese maple for several thousands dollars. Saw him later and he told me it was the perfect tree and none of his neighbors knew what it was and he wasn't telling. Turns out he was a well-known restauranteur that felt he had to outshine all the neighbors.

As a tree and shrub specialist I get to see all the unusual specimens that our buyer brings in from around the country.   The most coveted tree on our lot is the aristocrat of the tree world - Acer Palmatum, or Japanese Maple.  I've seen cultivars priced at $5,000 and up .  With hundreds of varieties from bright red, orange, burgundy, variegated green and pink and, chartreuse, there is bound to be one that will steal your heart. For me it was the 'Autumn Moon ' Maple, shown above,  and since I've rarely seen another in a garden I think it is very underutilized.

 Whenever possible I use evergreens in my design and a very underutilized specimen is Chamaecyparis obtusa  nana , or Japanese Falsecypress.  Elegant and artistic, it is much pricier than other evergreens but its uniqueness makes it worth the cost. 'Templehof' is one of my favorites.  Note the beautiful swirls and do not, by any means, compare it with Thuja , or arborvitae.  There is no comparison.

At first glance you'd probably not be able to name the colorful specimen above, which is another underutilized plant that I love for its colorful leaves that are attractive all season.  St. John's Wort is easy to grow but again, underutilized .

Rhododendron 'poukhanense ' or Korean azalea is one of the beauties of the Spring garden with its pale lavender bell- shaped blooms.  Azaleas in general are underutilized in the Chicago area because some have proven difficult to grow in our harsh climate. This azalea grows in Korea's rugged Poukhan mountain region with only mother nature as her keeper.  Enough said.

A camellia tree in Chicago? Be still my heart ! Actually its a Stewartia pseudo camellia and it comes in Chinese, Korean and Japanese versions.  A much over-looked under utilized tree, it's beautiful camellia-like blossoms appear in July and its stunning Fall color and beautiful exfoliating bark make it an ideal small ornamental tree of about 30 feet in height. 

The list of underutilized plants is endless but it must end here for the sake of brevity.  Please visit the Garden Designers Roundtable to read the posts of members who are writing on the subject for this month's theme. 

Written by Carolyngail at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago All rights reserved


  1. I had the same reaction when I discovered Stewartia--Camellias????? Here?? OK, so maybe they're not quite so exciting in some ways (bloom color), but maybe they're more exciting in others (that bark is hard to beat). Definitely a plant worth growing!

  2. Carolyn, I too love Japanese maples and marvel at their diversity and versatility in the garden. I just bought Acer palmatum 'Kiyohime', a.k.a., the groundcover maple, for my garden. When I saw it in person I knew I had to have one.

    Stewartia is on my plant wish list, which got much larger after reading all these wonderful posts today.

  3. Carolyn, I'm also a fan of St. Johnswort, especially the taller cultivar, Hypericum frondosum 'Sunburst'---lots of summer blooms in filtered shade. Love the Japanese maples photos, thanks!

  4. Ah, there you are taunting me with that gorgeous maple again! I love Chamaecyparus and use it where a classy little evergreen is needed. Thanks for the great choices! Which St. John's Wort (Hypericum) is that, and is it that color all year, or just in fall?

  5. I love that you featured a 'Lion's Head' maple - I have one growing in a pot that I fell in love with about 5 years ago. I've never seen them since (until your wonderful post, that is). And I'm LOVING your Stewartia recommendation - gorgeous tree!

  6. Oh THAT Maple is to die for! I wish I had a spot for one.
    Great pic on the St. John's Wort, there are SO many cultivars that are not well known and they're amazing. I'm wanting the white variegated one like crazy!!

  7. Excellent plant selection Carolyn! The Maple is gorgeous, I have a long love line for Chamaecyparis. We have several Azalea poukhanense 'Karen' in our yard, and they are very lovely! Thanks for sharing these!

  8. That maple is indeed a beauty. I'm trying 'Sunburst' hypericum in my garden this year. It's struggling a bit, whether with heat or drought I'm not sure. The standard St. John's wort, however, grows well in Austin in the shade.

  9. Hey Laura,

    That's a Hypericum calycinum Aaron's Beard 'brigadoon ' ( 12-18 inches ) and its treasured for its beautiful gold foliage which stays that color all season.

  10. Kathryn/plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.comJuly 28, 2010 at 8:53 PM

    Oh, that "pseudo" camelia is gorgeous! I would love it. It reminds me actually of the large white poppy you see on the highways of California. Matalija, I believe. So pretty. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Beautiful selections for the underused plant category Carolyn. Excellent, inspiring post!


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