Miami’s greenhouse guru Jack Keegan showcases 5 top plants
BY DONNA BOEN ’83, MTSC ’96, MIAMIAN EDITOR
With spring in the air and cheery yellow daffodils basking in the sun, seems like the perfect time to ask Miami’s Jack Keegan to preen over his favorite plants. Like any proud papa, he’s sharing photos of them, too.
Before we get to the photos, here’s a bit about Jack. After earning a master’s in horticulture at Penn State and working for a bit in Philadelphia, Keegan came to Miami in 1977 to run the greenhouses and, in his words, “never advanced!”
He continued to curate the Belk Greenhouse, attached to Boyd Hall on Miami’s Western campus, until he retired in 2019. He’s well-known among students and alumni for teaching Viticulture and Enology, aka the “wines” class. He also taught Horticulture and Botanical Principles of Landscape Gardening for over 30 years and hosted an “All-America Awards Garden” on Western.
Every spring he leads wildflower walks at Silvoor Biological Sanctuary adjacent to Miami’s Peffer Park and has for over 30 years. These days, he’s working on his own land while still teaching the wines class (three sections this semester), leading the wildflower walks and overseeing virtual wine tastings for the alumni association.
Jack’s 5 Favorites … in his own words
To come up with five favorite plants is like picking your favorite children or wine! I know too many to have favorites! But here is a selection of several plants that I grow or am especially fond of.
Jack Keegan and his Hellebores
Hellebores are a Eurasian species with many in the Balkans. The most common is the Christmas Rose (H. niger), which bloomed for me starting in late December and January and returned in full force, as you can see, after our February snows in Oxford.
The other seen here is the Lenten Rose, which blooms in March and April. The older varieties used to droop, but the newer cultivars hold their flowers up, come in many colors and have double petals. They are evergreen and deer hate them, so what’s not to love?
Tropical Angel’s Trumpets
Angel’s Trumpets (Brugmansia) are in the Nightshade family and tropical, and so I grow mine in pots on my deck. This is a heavy feeder and grows like gangbusters! If you have the room or a place where it won’t freeze, you can store yours in the winter when the plant is dormant. I buy new plants in spring in the mail.
A plant that will be a foot tall when it arrives, this can easily grow 6 feet tall and the same width in one summer! It has 6- to 10-inch pendant blooms that come mostly in white and yellow and pink and can be single and double. It has an intense aroma at night since it’s a moth and bat pollinator in the wild. The bees also love it. It is poisonous, but I have not wanted to munch on mine yet!
This is one I have grown in pots on my deck for years. Butterfly Lilies (Hedychium) are actually gingers that grow from a rhizome just like the fresh ginger you buy in the store.
I first became aware of this plant thanks to Sterling Cook, curator of the Miami University Art Museum when I arrived. These plants are often grown around stately homes in the South. I helped Sterling grow his every year since you must start them early in the season in a sunny window so that they will bloom beginning in July. A late planting may only start to bloom when we get frost. They also smell amazingly sweet and can be 6 feet tall, so big pots. The roots (rhizomes) are easy to overwinter.
Canna “Princess Di”
The Canna “Princess Di” is also one I grow in pots, much like the Butterfly Lily. I overwinter its roots. It grows to about 3 to 4 feet tall and almost always has these beautiful apricot flowers during the summer. One season I had trouble with squirrels eating the flower buds. Fortunately, the squirrels went elsewhere the following year. It is a great Canna variety.
Spicebush, a favorite favorite
Finally, I leave you with one of my favorite natives, our Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This is a shrub or small tree. Mine are about 10 years old and maybe 8 to 10 feet tall. They have these small yellow flowers early In spring and then leaves that have a wonderful aroma.
They provide the food for the Spicebush swallowtail butterfly, and the birds devour their red fruit. In the fall, they turn a lovely yellow. This is a great understory plant in a bed or woodland and a wonderful native that everyone should grow!