Some plants are the brunt of poor jokes, and I always wonder if that impacts their use and notoriety with gardeners. For example, the plant Neviusia alabamensis has the “official” common name of Alabama Snow Wreath. Unfortunately, it has also picked up the misfortunate name of “Never-used” as an obvious play on words with the genus name. Much like many people I suppose, I had never seen it bloom before until last May. Yet, after seeing it in flower, I came to wonder why this plant remains so obscure!
Neviusia is a member of the Rosaceae or Rose Family and resides within the subtribe Kerriae. It is only represented by two species native to North America. The genus was named by Asa Gray (1810–1888), who was a professor of Botany at Harvard University. The name honors the American botanist and Episcopal Rector Ruben Denton Nevius (1827–1913). Rev. Nevius had been botanizing with his friend Dr. William Stokes Wyman (1830–1915) along the Black Warrior River in Alabama near Tuscaloosa. At the time, Wyman was a professor of Latin at the U. of Alabama, but become President in 1901! Nevius sent samples of the plant to Gray in an effort to determine its identity. Realizing that it was an entirely new and undescribed genus, Gray wished to honor Nevius with the genus name. Nevius initially resisted and wanted the plant named Tuomeya in honor of another botanizing friend Michael Tuomey who had recently died. Dr. Gray was not apposed, until he discovered that the name Tuomeya had been used to describe an algae, and under The International Code of Nomenclature, once a name had been granted for one plant, algae, or fungi, it cannot be used again—although it can be used to describe an animal or mammal. Upon hearing of the conflict, Nevius consented to his name being used, and in 1858, the name was published. Oddly, it turns out there were a couple of inaccuracies in Nevius’ story. First, it was actually Wyman who initially discovered the plant during their expedition since he walked ahead and Nevius took up the rear. In addition, his wish to honor his old friend Michael Tuomey may not have been as virtuous as his letters to Gray initially appeared, since he was dating Tuomey’s daughter Margaret at the time, who he eventually married. Often, there is always a fun and hidden story behind a plant! The species epithet obviously honors the state of Alabama.
Aside from the interesting story behind the naming of the plant, the plant is really quite fascinating in its own right. It is rare in the wild and has been seen in only 16 locations in Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, southern Missouri and, of course Alabama. It appears that these occurrences represent individual remnant populations that survived glacial advances over the past 20,000 years. Each location may, in fact, consist of simply one suckering plant, since the seed is challenged to germinate and no young seedlings have been found in the wild. Fortunately, the stems root easily for the purposes of propagation. Young plants are upright in form, transitioning to a gracefully arching habit as they approach their mature heights of 4–6’ (pictured). The bark is golden brown and becomes lightly exfoliating on the older stems. In late April through early May, the flowers appear in clusters or cymes of 3–8 flowers. The flower display consists of a very prominent and showy cluster of ½” long anthers, subtended by leafy, light green sepals. For a family that is renowned for their showy display of petals, Neviusia is quite obviously lacking in this department. The 2-3” long foliage is clean and attractive with a corrugated appearance from the noticeably depressed venation. Its leaves bear a striking resemblance to the other two members of the subtribe Kerriae, which it shares with two Asian species: Kerria japonica or Japanese Kerria and Rhodotypos scandens or Black Jet Bead. Interestingly, both genera also have a very small family with only one species per genus and all are equally deer resistant.
Neviusia is easily grown in sun or shade, although flowering and the overall appearance of the plant is superior in the sun. Plants prefer evenly moist soils, and the leaves will appear tattered during periods of drought. In Alabama they are found on limestone ledges, but they thrive equally well in the more acidic soils of NJ. Although it currently has a more southern provenance, the plants are fully hardy through zone 4, indicating it may once have had a more northerly range, prior to glacial advances. The plants do surprisingly well without pruning and make an excellent natural hedge. If pruning is desired, do so just after blooming, allowing the new wood to develop flower buds for the following year.
The sister species is Neviusia cliftonii, so named after Glen Clifton who, along with Dean Taylor, discovered the plant growing in Shasta County in Northern California in 1992. Hardy to zone 6, its flowers look amazingly similar to its sister species, although the foliage appears less puckered and corrugated. Having seen Neviusia alabamensis in bloom at several different locations last year, I am convinced its carefree nature and attractive bloom could benefit more Gardens. Whether used in a massing or blended into the mixed border, this rarity in nature—which could be near extinction, yet has a very human connection with its discovery—should no longer be considered “never-used,” but “ever-used!”