Margie Jenkins, at 90 the doyenne of Louisiana native plant growers, won’t hesitate to suggest a non-native plant if she thinks it a better fit or color in a customer’s yard.
Jenkins, who lives down the road from her nursery in Amite, is the working guest of honor at Hilltop Arboretum’s 28th PlantFest Saturday and Sunday.
Proceeds from the annual plant sale go to operation of the arboretum and educational programs.
This year’s PlantFest T-shirt, the work of artist Doug Bourgeois, features one of Jenkins’ favorite plants.
Jenkins got 350 seedlings of Chinese evergreen dogwood (Cornus angustata) from a Florida nursery 10 years ago.
“Over the years, I’ve given away a lot of Cornus angustata,” Jenkins said, “and the reports have been good.”
“In full sun, native dogwoods don’t do that well,” she said. “But the Cornus angustata puts on a show.”
The evergreen dogwood blooms later in the spring than the native tree, keeps its leaves and is about the same height with the same canopy shape as the native.
“It’s a good plant,” Jenkins said. “No problem with disease. I didn’t realize how good it was until I started getting feedback.”
The success of the evergreen dogwood comes at a time when native dogwoods are in decline in Jenkins’ woods.
“She’s not alone,” said LSU AgCenter horticulturist Dan Gill.
Some parishes north of Lake Pontchartrain have seen a precipitous decline in native dogwoods the last 10 years, Gill said.
“We don’t know why,” he said.
Other parts of the state may not be affected, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive study done, Gill said.
Landscapes and plants are sometimes characters lurking in the background of Bourgeois’ paintings. See some of his work at http://www.arthurrogergallery.com.
“In my regular work, I do a lot of landscapes with people in them,” Bourgeois said.
For commissions like PlantFest, “I try to be the servant of what they want,” the artist said. “I strip away everything but the simplified form so you can see what the plant looks like.”
“I grow a lot of non-natives,” Jenkins said. “But I try to collect as many natives as I can from Washington and Tangipahoa parishes.”
“They usually put me in the natives section (at PlantFest),” Jenkins said. “People want to know when a plant blooms and the color.”
Natives may do better in the landscape than some hybrids, Jenkins said.
“They handle drought better because they’re not hand-watered in the wild,” Jenkins said. “Natives have fewer diseases. Some natives take wind better than others.”
Jenkins was born to Fred and Camille Yates in St. Tammany Parish a few miles from where she lives today.
St. Tammany touches Washington Parish to the north and Tangipahoa Parish on the west.
“We moved to Washington Parish in 1922 to be near the school bus line,” she said.
“All my people were plant people,” she said. “My dad planted pine trees until he couldn’t go anymore.”
Jenkins saw her first wild honeysuckle (native azalea) in St. Tammany Parish on the Tchefuncte River.
“I got to tag along with my dad,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes, he’d be fishing, and I’d be in the woods digging wild ginger.”