As cool temperatures descend on East Texas, summer flora may be the last thing on the minds of gardeners. But, as Dr. Jared Barnes explained, the winter season plays an integral role in determining the best cultivars to adorn one’s perennial landscape design.
Barnes, assistant professor of horticulture at Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, explained that there are two types of trial gardens in the horticulture industry. While one strictly focuses on evaluating new cultivars, the second explores a variety of cultivars within a particular genus to evaluate their performance in certain hardiness zones, which are regions delineated by minimum temperatures experienced.
“That’s the approach we’ve taken here,” he said while standing in a plot of 40 unique ornamental elephant ear varieties.
The choice to evaluate elephant ears, Barnes added, is due to the lack of large-scale research projects assessing the plant, as well as the positive feedback he received from members of the horticulture industry when he inquired about the potential project.
The perennial plant, which garners its name from the broad, long leaves that resemble the ears of an elephant, is typically known to thrive in shade to partial-sun. One component of Barnes’ trial will be to evaluate each variety’s tolerance to full-sun exposure.
“Currently we take measurements of leaf width, length and plant height, and we do a general overall leaf rating based on its appearance,” said horticulture major John Dilday.
Undergraduate students play an integral role in data collection and maintenance of the beds, while graduate students like Chanelle Angeny will conduct the final data analysis. Seuk Hong, another student pursuing a Master of Science in agriculture, hopes to conduct a molecular analysis of the trialed plants to map potential correlations between DNA and plant height, performance, sun tolerance and other variables.
Barnes said the three-year trial, funded by a grant from the Fred C. Gloeckner Foundation, is another step forward in providing southern gardeners with reliable information on the tropical varieties best suited for their climate.
Additionally, the grant made it possible for Barnes to purchase an instrument that objectively measures the colors featured in plants.
“Color is something in the horticulture realm that is poorly communicated, so we wanted to be able to correlate it with national standards and really try to make a 21st-century trial garden,” he said. “Ultimately I would like to make SFA a repository for plants of the Southeast, both native and tropical.”
As winter approaches, Barnes advises gardeners to simply allow their elephant ears to die down naturally. While in cooler regions of the country the plants may require mulching or even excavation of the tubers for winter storage, he said he expects many of the varieties in the trial garden to fare well during the season.