Oklahoma athletes and plants make their presence known at Olympic Games

The Olympics are always a very special experience and it is a lot of fun to watch all the great competitions, many in “minor” or specialty sports that never get attention except during this world wide athletic festival that plays out every 4 years. It is natural and exciting to cheer for our USA Team members in all these competitions and is particularly satisfying to cheer for our Oklahoma neighbors competing for the United States in gymnastics, wrestling, baseball, weight lifting and other sports during these 16 days of athletic events. Its not just Oklahoma athletes starring on the world stage as China hosts these Olympic games. Two significant Oklahoma plants were also selected to perform on this world stage. Dr Carl Whitcomb of Lacebark Research in Stillwater is famous for his Crapemyrtle breeding and the Chinese were impressed with many of his varieties and back in 2002 acquired thousands of unrooted cuttings of his breakthrough cherry red variety “Red Rocket” to root and grow out to plant around Beijing at Olympic festival sites. It is very difficult to ship plant material around the world both because of freight and handling issues and because each country has its own phytosanitary rules to protect against introduction of new pests, diseases and invasive plants. We don’t allow, with very few exceptions, plants into our country with soil on the roots so we usually move plants around the world as seeds or rooted or unrooted cuttings. Most other countries have similar rules. In this case the Chinese acquired thousands of unrooted cuttings, air freighted them to China where they were rooted and grown into large mature plants. Each year they took additional cuttings and grew more Red Rocket Crapemyrtle until they built up a large supply to make an Olympic impression on Beijing as they host the world. The irony is that the Crapemyrtle is native to China and comes from the southern and eastern foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. They have been grown in China for thousands of years, were introduced to Europe by Dutch and English traders in the 1700’s. They did not perform as well in Europe’s cool mild summers as they love the heat. In the mid 1700’s Crapemyrtles were introduced to Charleston, South Carolina where they flourished in colors of medium to light pink, tones of lavender and white. Dr. Donald Egolf at the National Arboreterum in Washington, D.C.  bred Crapemyrtles for years and the holy grail was a true red flower. Dr. Carl Whitcomb of Stillwater collected seed from one eye catching plant in 1985 and those 5000 seedlings led to the breakthrough and patented Red Rocket variety after six generations and over 100,000 seedlings. Red Rocket is a vigorous upright plant that can grow into a large shrub or short tree of 15 to 20 feet tall. The flowers are bright cherry red and very showy in cone shaped clusters up to 24” tall. In Oklahoma they often bloom from early July into October. Crapemyrtles do best in full sun and bloom on new wood so the more they grow the more they flower.

All over Oklahoma right now you can enjoy the best of our summer flowering shrubs including Althea (Rose of Sharon), large flowered hardy hibiscus and many colors and varieties of gorgeous Crapemyrtle including the many varieties bred right here in Oklahoma by Dr. Carl Whitcomb. Crapemyrtles are definitely a gold medal winner for producing spectacular color and excitement in the Oklahoma landscape. Many of the newer varieties are more tolerant of hard winter freezes and as a result are less likely to freeze back to the ground. Many newer varieties are also more resistant to powdery mildew and less likely to need a fungicide spray.

Riviera Bermuda grass, bred at Oklahoma State University and produced by Johnston Seed and Grain Company of Enid, Oklahoma is becoming well known for use on athletic fields around the world. Since its commercial introduction in 2004 it has been used by NFL Teams like the Washington Redskins, on many famous golf courses including Gary Player Courses in South Africa, on horse racing tracks in Asia and even on the OU Sooner football practice field. But now its most famous installation is at the Beijing Olympics Wukesong Sports Center which will host the Olympic baseball competition giving Stillwater native, Brett Anderson, a special kind of homefield pitching advantage on the very tough Riviera Bermuda developed by OSU turf specialists in the OSU horticulture department. Johnston Seed grew and then shipped the Oklahoma grass seed to China where it is planted to produce the thick, tough athletic field which will host baseball players from around the world. The Oklahoma bred Riviera Bermuda is much tougher as it is bred to tolerate both our extreme heat and cold in Oklahoma where Arizona and California Bermuda are not nearly as cold tolerant when bred and raised in the desert. The early reports on the grass field are good and it appears it will be another gold medal winner for Oklahoma plants at the Beijing Olympics.

China is a huge country with many climate zones but much of China is very similar to Oklahoma and so it affords the opportunity for some of our plants to adapt there and many of China’s plants to adapt here. The plants collected by the last US government plant exploration research teams in the late 40’s and early 50’s before the communists took over China and shut the trade doors ended up at the USDA Southern Plains Research Station in Woodward, Oklahoma and many of the surviving plants are now mature specimens. Oklahoma Nurseryman, Steve Bieberich, of Clinton has participated in recent plant expeditions to China now that the walls of trade are open once more. Enjoy the Olympics and watch for our Oklahoma plants as well as the Oklahoma athletes to shine on the world stage.

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