Michael Dirr at the National Arboretum
by Marsha Goldberg, Fairfax Master Gardener
Staff members and volunteers at the National Arboretum had the chance to hear Michael Dirr speak about his current research and breeding programs when he visited recently.
Dirr pointed out that the shrubs people purchase the most frequently are boxwood, viburnum, and hydrangeas, so much of his work is focused on those. He discussed his efforts to develop new cultivars of distylium, “…the most beautiful plant you never heard of.” Distylium are underused in American gardens but are an extremely attractive alternative to plants such a cherry laurel, junipers, hollies, and boxwood, which are subject to ruinous diseases, such as boxwood blight. Members of the witch hazel family, Hamamelis, dystylium are compact, evergreen, disease- and insect-resistant shrubs for full sun to partial shade. They do well in zones 6b to 9 and are tolerant of heat and drought as well as wet soil. They have small, reddish maroon flowers in late winter, adding interest to add late winter garden. Among Dirr’s favorites are Vintage Jade, Blue Cascade, Cinnamon Girl, and Emerald Heights. You can learn more about this plant and see pictures on the website of Plant Introductions, Inc.
Dirr also discussed his extensive work with hydrangeas. Macrophylla is still the most familiar type but paniculata is gaining many fans, Dirr said. Having been involved with the development of the extremely popular Endless Summer series — nurseries sold 18 million plants last year — Dirr has continued to breed them for increased bloom time, larger flowers, and better cold resistance. Two spectacular varieties of Endless Summer are “Twist and Shout” and “Bloomstruck”, both of which bloom on new wood as well as old, producing flowers all summer long on sturdy stems which can support the extraordinary large and numerous blossoms. They are also more drought resistant so the leaves do not wilt as readily in the heat. Perhaps Dirr’s most interesting project, however, is his effort to develop a purple leaf hydrangea which he is almost ready to bring to market.