University of Delaware
Carla Markell with the gordlinia donated to the governor's mansion by UD Botanic Gardens.

Flowering partnership

Governor's garden transformed with rare plants from UD Botanic Gardens


2:26 p.m., Nov. 21, 2014--Nearly a year after University of Delaware Botanic Gardens (UDBG) partnered with the Woodburn Garden Project in Dover, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and first lady Carla Markell held an official public opening of the gardens adjacent to the governor’s mansion.

While major donors and dignitaries like former Delaware Gov. Mike Castle were on hand for the event, the focus fell on the garden’s diverse flora, including several plants and trees donated by UDBG. Carla Markell, beaming with pride over the new design, praised the collaborative effort between her staff and members of UDBG and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

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“To me, it is essential to create the partnerships between the private and public sector,” Markell said. “That’s when great things can happen and the whole community has an opportunity to get involved.”

Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, shared the first lady’s sentiment, saying, “We are thrilled to be part of this garden restoration project. The real strength of our horticulture faculty is in landscape design, so I’m glad they reached out to us for a project as important as this.” 

The relationship began when landscape artist Rodney Robinson, a UD alumnus who hails from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, learned that the gordlinia tree, a cross between the franklinia and its relative, the gordonia, was being featured at the UDBG’s 2013 Spring Plant Sale. Robinson knew immediately that the flowering tree would make for a great addition to the project.

“I was immediately anxious to get it for the Woodburn Garden Project, because I was aware of its rarity,” Robinson said of the gordlinia, which features large “fried egg” white flowers surrounded by deep maroon fall foliage. “But I also wanted a small tree up by the house – one that would flower and also tell an interesting story that would help to compliment the house itself.”

After discussing the addition of the gordlinia with Markell and Ken Darsney, state horticulturist for Delaware’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, Robinson reached out to UDBG Director John Frett and Assistant Director Melinda Zoehrer.

“They came to us looking for partners in the project and the possibilities of what the Botanic Gardens could offer,” Frett said. “Although the gordlinia was the most notable plant we supplied, there were several other donations that totaled about $500.”

Darsney, who manages outdoor care and upkeep for all of Delaware’s state-owned historic properties, said the Snowflake hydrangea, the Let’s Dance hydrangea, the Declaration lilac and the Shasta viburnum were also donated by UDBG. However, the gordlinia served as the centerpiece, due to its ability to withstand changes in climate and its historical significance.

“The gordlinia handles heat extremes, has fewer root issues and pest problems, and is more suitable to grow without needing extra fertilizer or pesticide,” Darsney said. “But it also derives from the Franklinia alatamaha, which is a native tree with deep historical significance.”

A tree with history

According to Robinson, the franklinia was discovered in the mid-1700s by John Bartram, a Colonial era botanist who named the plant after his “good buddy,” Benjamin Franklin. Though the franklinia is currently extinct in the wild, its offspring, the gordlinia, is quite the vigorous tree and shares a similar historical significance with the governor’s residence, which was erected around 1798 by Charles Hillyard III.

“We wanted to create a new garden that takes its lead from the style and history of the house,” Robinson said. “The gordlinia, with its franklinia bloodline, has that attribute. When you add the fact that it’s a tremendously vigorous tree, it’s quite the fit for this period piece.”

After planting the gordlinia in late 2013, Robinson and Darsney, though confident in the plant’s ability to survive extreme conditions, were understandably concerned as the winter season of 2013-14 featured plenty of snowfall and cold temperatures.

“We thought we might lose it over the harsh winter, but the gordlinia is incredibly resilient,” Robinson said. “Neither of its parents are particularly strong, but you get them together and they produce a very robust plant.”

Frett added that the gordlinia has made a great addition to UDBG’s diverse collection of “woody plants,” and that seeing the gordlinia placed in a public garden is a boon for the University. 

“Hopefully it brings recognition to the institution, the college and the Botanic Gardens,” Frett said. “That way, people visiting Woodburn Garden are more aware of what we’re involved in and that we have a firm place in the state’s horticultural makeup.”

Darsney, as he begins work on other statewide projects, is optimistic about the future of working with UDBG and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“I would be absolutely welcome to a partnership with UD in future projects,” Darsney said. “Any time you can take a public space and partner with the University, where they are able to get a product in front of the public for enjoyment and make that connection, it’s a win-win.”

Article by Robert Kalesse

Photo by Lindsay Yeager

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