Origin of 'Chapel Hill Yellow'

By Michael A. Dirr, Ph.D.

Remarkable plants appear in the most unsuspected venues. In late summer 2005, I noticed a stray lantana seedling with beautiful yellow flowers that had emerged from beneath an unnamed, yellow-foliaged Abelia seedling. The plant grew by the back entrance to our daughter Susy's Chapel Hill, NC, home.

I looked at it like, "Another lantana, who really cares." And 2005 fades away and the cold renders the lantana chip-brown. In June 2006, flowers explode as a glowing yellow with a butterscotch eye. Foliage is rich, polished, and double dark green. This "woody" guy takes a second look.

The suspected origin (with a bird as the sower) has genetics allied to 'Miss Huff' and 'New Gold' as both were part of Susy's border. 'Miss Huff' is a perennial and 'New Gold' is borderline perennial to annual. I have never observed fruit set on 'New Gold', and none to abundant fruit set on 'Miss Huff', so I inferred 'Miss Huff' was the maternal parent.

'Miss Huff' has an abundance of orange flowers and grows 5 feet tall in a single season in USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Foliage is dull green and larger than that of the true dark-green, low-growing (15"), gold-flowered 'New Gold'.

The original 'Chapel Hill Yellow' ('CHY') was a perennial for four years in Susy's garden. It displays the propensity for vigorous regrowth comparable to 'Miss Huff'. This flower color difference, improved foliage, and comparable cold adaptability raised the potential for other colors and quality traits. In 2006, about 800 seedlings of 'Miss Huff' (collected from plants in Susy's garden) flowered at the Center for Applied Nursery Research in Dearing, Ga. About 95 percent were the typical orange with 5 percent pink to rose. Not a single flower was pure yellow or red. All seedlings had the upright habit and large, dull-green foliage of 'Miss Huff'. Nine selections were made. Two (orange-red and beautiful pink-rose) are still under evaluation (now Christened 'Orange Crush' and 'Pink Crush', respectively). 'Chapel Hill Yellow' produces greater quantities of flowers on an equivalent-size plant compared to the two selections.

In late summer 2006, I decided to propagate and test Susy's seedling. Every visitor who witnessed the plant in flower exclaimed, "Wow!" In 2007, Bonnie and I used 'CHY' in a large, blue ceramic container. Flowers were still percolating in October. Branches layer, one upon the other, akin to a seven-layer salad, forming a wide-spreading, even-keeled mound.

I estimate height at 15 to 18" (possible to 24") with a 2 to 4' spread. Plants are easily tweaked by pinching and pruning the terminals. The propensity to continually produce abundant flowers, ease of culture and drought tolerance coalesce into garden success.

Plant Introductions Inc. in Watkinsville, GA, will patent the plant. Home Depot and independent garden centers are starting to offer the plant this year.

My PII partners, Mark Griffith and Jeff Beasley, agreed to donate 30% of the royalties to the Sweet Melissa Lung Transplant Fund at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Susy was the recipient of double-lung transplants at UNC. Through 2010, PII has contributed $30,855.26 to the Fund.

'Chapel Hill Yellow' in Susy's garden
'Chapel Hill Yellow' flower
'Chapel Hill Gold', a sport of 'Chapel Hill Yellow'
'Chapel Hill Yellow'
'Chapel Hill Yellow' in a container
'Chapel Hill Gold' flower