2014 Renee’s Garden Seeds Review

Cosmos 'Sonata Knee High'

Cosmos ‘Sonata Knee High’

My apologies to my dozen or so loyal readers for my prolonged silence. A gardening-related injury sidelined me unexpectedly. I start physical therapy tomorrow, and hope to be ready for another growing season by the time it arrives.

Zinnia Berry Basket

Zinnia ‘Berry Basket’

I am overdue to summarize my experience with the free seeds Renee’s Garden provided me with as a member of the Garden Writers Association. First, I was unable to try three of the varieties I requested. The two sunflower types and a Four o’clock mix all required direct sowing. Unfortunately, my garden experienced no measurable rain for the first two months of the growing season, starting right about the time I needed to sow the seeds. By the time the rains returned, it was mid-July — not a good time to start any flower seed in the piedmont of North Carolina.

Asclepias Butterfly Bright Wings with Spicebush Swallowtail

Asclepias ‘Butterfly Bright Wings’ with Spicebush Swallowtail

However, the seeds I was able to sow in my greenhouse in early March all germinated magnificently, and I was able to transplant out a number of seedlings that performed quite well for me all summer long.

Zinnia Berry Basket mix

Zinnia ‘Berry Basket’ mix

I didn’t try any veggie varieties from Renee’s Garden this year. Here are the flower varieties I grew.

Asclepias ‘Butterfly Bright Wings’

The yellow version of Butterfly Bright Wings

The yellow version of ‘Butterfly Bright Wings’

This is a non-native, tropical species of milkweed that was described as floriferous and tender, meaning winter should kill it. When I planted this, I had not read that these tropical milkweeds are actually confusing Monarch butterflies, especially in the western US, where groups migrating south are becoming confused by these flowers. Instead of resting and then flying further south, they are laying their eggs on these tropical milkweeds, thereby disrupting the life cycle pattern of the Monarchs. I don’t think this is an issue in the southeastern US, because the first freeze kills this variety to the ground.

The red version of Butterfly Bright Wings

The red version of ‘Butterfly Bright Wings’

As you can see from the photos, the seeds I planted produced some plants with pure yellow-orange flowers, and some with red-orange flowers. The red ones were especially stunning. My plants bloomed all summer until hard frost, and grew to a height of about four feet. The plants were sturdy, requiring no support to remain upright even during thunderstorms.

 

Butterfly Bright Wings produced abundant seeds.

‘Butterfly Bright Wings’ produced abundant seeds.

They produced many seed pods, and the resulting seeds yielded a number of volunteer seedlings in the bed where I transplanted this variety. I’m assuming all were killed by the first freeze. I’ll let you know next spring if any reappear.

Marigold ‘Summer Splash’

I didn’t take a single picture of this variety that I liked enough to put in my blog. This variety produced larger plants than my favorite Queen Sophia marigold, and the branches broke and split early on. The flowers themselves were kind of a ho-hum yellow. Give me Queen Sophia any day.

Cosmos ‘Sonata Knee High’

Cosmos Sonata Knee High, white version

Cosmos ‘Sonata Knee High’, white version

I tried this Cosmos variety, because it is supposed to be shorter than some of the others. It may have been slightly shorter, but mine all grew eventually to a height of about 4.5 feet — not where my knees appear. As is true for most Cosmos varieties, a spell of heat and humidity combined with hard rain turned the plants into fungal mush. But during the early drought period I mentioned previously, they were very happy.

Cosmos Sonata Knee High mix

Cosmos ‘Sonata Knee High’ mix

All three colors in the mix were lovely. As is often the case, the white flowers tended to look the worse for wear most often.

Sonata Knee High magenta version

‘Sonata Knee High,’ magenta version

The pink and magenta versions stayed lovely for several days. After the fungus killed the plants, I pulled them up and left that bed empty. In September, a number of new seedlings appeared, clearly the offspring of the many spent flower heads I had snipped off to keep the flowers blooming.

Echinacea ‘Paradise Mix’

Echinacea Paradise Mix

Echinacea ‘Paradise Mix’

This is the only perennial from Renee’s Garden that I tried this year. It often takes perennials a full year’s cycle to grow large enough to produce flowers. But one of the plants I grew managed to produce the lovely bloom above. This mix was advertised as producing flowers in the red-yellow-orange range, so I confess I was disappointed when the one flower I got looked very much like my native coneflowers, only slightly larger. Very late in the fall, another seedling produced a flower bud that looked to me as if it were going to be red, but a freeze killed it before it could open. However, all the seedlings I planted out grew well throughout the season, and I’m hoping for lots of variably colored flowers next year.

Dahlia ‘Dwarf Watercolors’

A double-flowered Dahlia Dwarf Watercolor

A double-flowered Dahlia ‘Dwarf Watercolor’

Dahlias are usually considered to be perennial flowers in my area, but the seed package from Renee’s Garden called this variety an annual. I love dahlias, but most are large and take a lot of room, plus deer love them. The description of this variety was irresistible. My sowing yielded 5 plants, 2 of which were eaten by voles early in the season. Of the three that survived, one was a lovely white with pink undertones, one was a double yellow, and the other was a single yellow.

The single-flowered yellow dahlia

The single-flowered yellow dahlia

All bloomed nonstop all summer, no doubt aided by my attentive snipping of spent flower heads. I also sprayed them all summer with deer repellant. I interplanted them with two other varieties from Renee’s Garden, and because these dahlias really were dwarf varieties, they were a bit overpowered by what turned out to be larger flower varieties. But that did not prevent the pollinators from finding them.

The pinkish white dahlia

The pinkish white dahlia

After frost zapped these plants, I decided to see what their roots looked like. To my delight, all three had formed a significant number of tubers. They seemed to be in excellent condition, so I bagged them up with some dry potting soil and put them in my cool garage for the winter. I’m hoping the tubers will re-sprout for me next spring, despite their description as annuals.

Salvia ‘Coral Nymph’

A close-up of Salvia Coral Nymph

A close-up of Salvia ‘Coral Nymph’

I tried this annual last year and failed. It would not germinate for me in the greenhouse. What a difference a year makes. I got abundant, vigorous seedlings this year, all of which successfully transplanted, eventually growing to large (3.5 feet), multi-branched, perpetually floriferous bee magnets. For reasons known only to my camera, I didn’t get any great pictures of that bed, but trust me, they are well worth growing.

Salvia Coral Nymph looked great all summer beside my front walk.

Salvia ‘Coral Nymph’ looked great all summer beside my front walk.

Snapdragon ‘Butterfly Chantilly’

In bright sun, these snapdragons faded into the background.

In bright sun, these snapdragons faded into the background.

This snapdragon mixed-color mix germinated well, and the flowers bloomed all summer long. However, the mix did not produce colors I liked. They were mostly muted and muddy. One pure lemon yellow one was the exception. I won’t try these again.

My favorite color of the snapdragon mix, with a young Salvia Coral Nymph

My favorite color of the snapdragon mix, with a young Salvia ‘Coral Nymph’

Zinnia ‘Berry Basket’

Zinnia Berry Basket mix

Zinnia ‘Berry Basket’ mix

This zinnia mix did not grow as large as the variety I tried last year. Instead of attaining heights of nearly eight feet, this variety stopped around the five-foot mark, which was fine with me. Even so, the stems eventually began to fall over and split from the weight of side branches laden with flower buds.

A Silver-spotted Skipper enjoying a Berry Basket Zinnia

A Silver-spotted Skipper enjoying a Berry Basket Zinnia

Despite their tendency to fall over and their eventual disfiguration by humidity-enhanced fungal diseases, these flowers kept producing until hard frost. Every bloom attracted abundant pollinators, from bumblebees to butterflies.

Berry Basket Zinnia

Berry Basket Zinnia

I loved the mix of rich colors and forms in this variety. They made for fabulous instant, long-lasting bouquets of cut flowers. I would happily grow this mix again, but next time I’ll space them farther apart, and I’ll introduce a support system early on, before they start collapsing under their own weight.

Nasturtiums

Nasturtium Cup of Sun

Nasturtium ‘Cup of Sun’

I grew three varieties this year. This is my third year growing ‘Cup of Sun’. I just love it. It’s a clumper, not a climber, and in my garden, it remains politely in its place until late summer. For some reason, at that point in the growing season, it tends to go a little nuts, overgrowing anything in its path. Fortunately, by that time, most of the beds are done for the season.

Cup of Sun with Empress of India

‘Cup of Sun’ with ‘Empress of India’

I interplanted ‘Cup of Sun’ with a new variety for me — another clumper called ‘Empress of India’. It was not nearly as vigorous as ‘Cup of Sun’, but it was quite lovely, producing leaves that were more blue-green than ‘Cup of Sun’.

Cup of Sun and Empress of India

‘Cup of Sun’ and ‘Empress of India’

The climbing variety I interplanted with my pole beans this year was called ‘Moonlight’. It produced a pale yellow flower that was not nearly as vigorous or visually effective as the ‘Spitfire’ variety I had grown before. If I grow a climber again, I’ll probably go back to ‘Spitfire’.

Nasturtium Moonlight was OK but not memorable.

Nasturtium ‘Moonlight’ was OK but not memorable.

I direct-sowed all the nasturtiums when I planted my veggies, which is why they managed to become established before the early drought set in.

By the time the first hard freeze killed the nasturtiums, I was secretly relieved. They were mounding over paths and beds in all directions — gorgeous — but reminding me just a little too much of that evil southern invader, kudzu.

In summary, my test varieties this year were mostly very successful. I’d grow most of them again.

And I’m looking forward to what Renee’s Garden will be offering for next year’s growing season. Thanks, again, Renee’s Garden, for giving me the opportunity to test your seeds in my garden.

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The Next Best Thing…

To this:

Native holly (Ilex opaca)

Native holly (Ilex opaca)

Is going from this:

Our roof a week ago.

Our roof a week ago.

To this:

Our roof now.

Our roof now.

That’s right, folks, Wonder Spouse and I have “gone solar.” Human technology will never match the Green World’s efficiency at converting sunlight into energy, but it’s getting better.  Good enough, in fact, that when a cost-effective opportunity arose, we couldn’t ignore it.

We’re not making energy yet, because the power company must come and replace our current electric meter with a bidirectional one that will record the energy our panels generate. After that happens, the experts who installed our system predict that we should be able to generate about half of the electricity we consume in a year, and recoup our financial investment in about five years. Not bad for rookie photosynthesizers! :)

This evergreen magnolia photosynthesizes all year long. Now Wonder Spouse and I will too, sort of.

This evergreen magnolia photosynthesizes all year long. Now Wonder Spouse and I will too, sort of.

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Thanks to The Nature Conservancy

Native pitcher plants that summer in my water feature.

Native pitcher plants that summer in my water feature.

I have been a member of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) for over 30 years, and I have the plaque to prove it. They insisted on giving it to me a couple of years ago. It was the first conservation organization I joined after I got out of graduate school and had a full-time job.

In my opinion, The Nature Conservancy has always walked the talk. In the beginning, I donated to the organization as a whole. TNC does important work all over the world, and I know any donation is money well spent. But as I became aware of how many special places my home state, North Carolina, was losing annually, I decided to direct my donations to the North Carolina Chapter of TNC.  For any North Carolina readers of this blog interested in donating to a conservation cause, you can’t go wrong sending money to the NC Chapter.

Pink Lady's Slipper Orchid

Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid

 

For readers in other parts of the US, if you go to the United States page of the TNC Web site, you’ll see a list of states on the left side of the page. Click on yours to learn of the good work TNC is doing in your homeland. And for my international readers (and it astonishes me daily how many of you there are), that top link will take you to their main page, which includes links about their work all over the world. Find a spot that speaks to your conservation heart, and direct your donations there.

On the NC TNC page, check out the link called Places We Protect. It lists all the ecosystems and habitats they are protecting and managing. As you might expect, the mountains and the coast of NC contain the most preserves. The piedmont region has been most densely populated and modified for hundreds of years. Many (but not all) of once-special piedmont spots are now housing developments and shopping malls. Even so, they have managed to protect two special piedmont preserves. And this year, TNC-NC protected their 700,000th acre. That is nothing short of awesome.

I could talk all day about the value of TNC preserves, but there’s one that anyone visiting the Outer Banks along the coast of NC should always check out — the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Most folks who visit the NC coast don’t even realize that our coastline once was wooded in many areas right up to the sand dunes along the ocean. And those forests were extraordinary for their beauty and their ability to endure all that Mother Nature throws at our vulnerable coastal areas. You can see one of these few remaining forests at this preserve, walk the trails, read the signage, learn about the way this land used to be.

A mature Bald Cypress with a crowd of its root "knees."

A mature Bald Cypress with a crowd of its root “knees.”

The NC coastal areas have undergone massive development in the last century or so. Many extraordinary and increasingly rare ecosystems only still survive thanks to the efforts of TNC-NC and other conservation organizations working with them. Here’s a link to a video about one of NC’s niftiest plants — the Venus Flytrap. This species is only native to an area about 100 miles in diameter centering on the Wilmington, NC area. The places in South Carolina where they once grew are almost all gone, but NC still has some preserves with healthy populations. Unfortunately, plant poachers know this too, and sneak into the preserves at night, stealing every plant they can find. The good news in NC is that as of today, poaching Venus Flytraps has gone from misdemeanor to felony status. Now if they do the crime, they might actually do some time.

If you are a NC piedmont region dweller, you don’t have to travel to these coastal preserves to see carnivorous plants. The North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC has on display one of the finest collections of carnivorous plants in the world. Most folks don’t realize that these plants — Venus Flytraps and various species of pitcher plants, for example — actually bloom in the spring. Venus Flytrap flowers are quite lovely, and pitcher plant flowers must be seen to be appreciated. You can see all of these plants blooming at the NCBG every spring.

But today my focus is on The Nature Conservancy. If you like to hike in beautiful places, if you want your child to see Venus Flytraps in their natural habitat, if you sleep better at night knowing that knowledgeable, experienced professionals are tirelessly working to preserve our special places for future generations, then please consider a holiday donation to The Nature Conservancy.

And consider making it an annual habit. Maybe in thirty years, you too will earn a plaque commemorating your efforts to help protect our natural heritage. :)

Nature's gardens are the source of many a home gardener's favorite flowers, like this Purple Coneflower.

Nature’s gardens are the source of many a home gardener’s favorite flowers, like this Purple Coneflower.

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Grateful for Trees

The Northern Red Oak that once sheltered my house.

The Northern Red Oak that once sheltered my house.

This year, on this day when we citizens of the United States give thanks for our many blessings, I am grateful for trees – forest canopy giants, colorful understory beauties, and even specimen trees artfully sited in home landscapes to improve “curb appeal.” As far as I’m concerned, any native or non-native, non-invasive tree in the landscape is a win for the natural world.

Halesia diptera in full bloom.

Halesia diptera in full bloom.

In the last few weeks, I’ve attended three hour-long presentations by invited candidates currently under consideration for the position of Director of the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG). Up to now, the NCBG has only had part-time directors. As a long-time member and volunteer of this public garden, I am delighted that it will now have the undivided attention of a full-time director. All three candidates are impressive, and all gave wonderful talks, but it is the words of the most recent candidate that remain with me most vividly.

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

He spoke at length about an issue I’ve observed often myself – the alarming disconnect between most Americans – especially children – and the natural world. Many causes for this are posited, including the omnipresence of computer games and the increasing urbanization of our homelands. He used a term I hadn’t heard before that I think aptly captures this profound obliviousness to the natural world – Plant Blindness. He defined Plant Blindness as the inability of people to distinguish one green plant from another, or to even notice the plants at all. He cited truly terrifying – to me, anyway – statistics about how many Americans are afflicted with Plant Blindness. I didn’t write them down, but trust me, the numbers are not small.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this towering canopy specimen.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this towering canopy specimen.

I have trouble wrapping my head around this idea that most folks don’t even see the Green World that I love so deeply. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been thankful for trees. My earliest memories are of specific trees. I still remember the roughness of the blocky bark and the clean, resinous fragrance of a line of Loblolly Pines in the front yard of my home when I was about four years old. That spot and those trees are my first memory. I spent many hours sitting quietly among the brown needles, leaning against a great pine, listening to the wind caress the branches towering above me. It was a soothing, hypnotic sound, not unlike waves of a calm ocean breaking long and slow on a sandy beach. Their gentle Loblolly lullaby made it easy for me to remain quiet enough to encourage resident chipmunks to emerge from their burrows to dash about on what always seemed to be urgent business.

A tall Loblolly pine in my front yard is laden with abundant cones.

A tall Loblolly pine in my front yard is laden with abundant cones.

My family moved several times during my childhood, and what I remember most vividly about every home is the yard, especially the trees. To think that children today are growing up without ever becoming acquainted with a special great White Oak or a Southern Magnolia with branches built for climbing truly breaks my heart. But Plant Blindness has dangerous side-effects beyond never giving a child a chance to bond with the natural world.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Because an increasing number of adults suffer from this affliction, they are oblivious to the many benefits trees – and especially forests – provide. Most of the wildlife native to the southeastern piedmont region of the US is adapted to live in forests. They need forests for food and shelter. And the forests need to be healthy. An adult with Plant Blindness won’t see that a forest overgrown with Chinese Wisteria and a dense understory of Chinese Privet and Russian Olive is not remotely the same as a healthy native Oak-Hickory climax forest with an understory of Sourwood, Dogwood, Redbud, etc. They are blind to the difference, but native animals are not.

About 40 feet tall, this dogwood is probably about 50 years old, maybe even older.

About 40 feet tall, this dogwood is probably about 50 years old, maybe even older.

Because the Plant Blind don’t see trees, they don’t notice the beneficial effects of living beside and within forests. There’s a reason old southern homes are surrounded by towering oaks. Before the days of air-conditioned homes, trees – and forests – provided air conditioning. Transpiration – the movement of water from roots to leaves and into the air – humidifies the air, making the air cooler and more pleasant. On a summer afternoon, transpiration of trees in a deciduous forest will lower air temperature by ten degrees Fahrenheit below the temperature in a shaded area outside the forest. Ten degrees! As climate change continues to create wider summer temperature swings and unpredictable drought cycles, the substantial ameliorating effects of forests could make a critical difference. But the Plant Blind are unable to see the trees or the forests, so they aren’t likely to realize what they’ve lost.

Trunk of a Water Oak; behind is Bigleaf Magnolia showing off its fall color.

Trunk of a Water Oak; behind is Bigleaf Magnolia showing off its fall color.

If you’ve read this blog much, you’ve read about some of the many wonderful trees native to our region. Every species plays a role in its native ecosystem. Every species possesses its own unique beauty – fragrant flowers, handsome bark, breath-taking fall leaf color. It boggles my brain that the Plant Blind don’t see this!

Acer rubrum flowers morph to winged crimson seeds

Acer rubrum flowers morph to winged crimson seeds

Thus, on this day of American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for trees, and I invite my readers to step outside after your feast today and appreciate your native landscape. Take your child or grandchild by the hand and go caress the bark of a Loblolly Pine, a White Oak, or a smooth-trunked Beech tree. Appreciate the differences and encourage that child to do the same. Marvel at the recently deposited leaves swirling in November winds, note the Cardinals sitting on bare branches. Practice seeing the natural world in all its infinite diversity and beauty. Teach your children to be thankful for trees.

Some Useful References on Trees

  • Godfrey, Michael A., FIELD GUIDE TO THE PIEDMONT
  • Dirr, Michael A. MANUAL OF WOODY LANDSCAPE PLANTS
  • Kirkman, Katherine L., Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold, NATIVE TREES OF THE SOUTHEAST: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE
  • Miller, James H. and Karl V. Miller, FOREST PLANTS OF THE SOUTHEAST AND THEIR WILDLIFE USES
Exquisite exfoliating bark of Paperbark Maple

Exquisite exfoliating bark of native Paperbark Maple

 

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Saving the Special Places

River Cooter

River Cooter

As I recently explained here, our backyards and gardens will have increasing difficulties remaining healthy unless we preserve surrounding native woodlands and fields too. The wildlife we need to pollinate our vegetables, gobble up pesky insects, and beautify our homes with color, movement, and song need those surrounding native ecosystems to find food, shelter, and nesting sites. Thus, I am enthusiastically supportive of regional nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving and protecting the special places near our homes. With the “season of giving” nearly upon us, I thought I’d mention a few of the organizations that could use your help to save some of the remaining special places in the southeastern US piedmont region.

Many of these places are choice examples of native ecosystems, still mostly undiminished by intrusive non-native invasive species and destructive land-clearing. Some preserved lands are farms, many held by generations of the same family, lovingly cared for and appreciated. Many folks don’t know this, but the really prime so-called arable lands — the ones ideal for farming — are rapidly vanishing in urbanizing areas of the southeastern piedmont. The reason? Prime arable lands tend to be located in places where people like to live — beside rivers and creeks, where centuries of flood deposits have left behind deep, rich soils. The Native Americans knew this and exploited these areas for their farming activities. European colonists often took over these areas to grow their own crops.

Actively flowing water in our creek

Actively flowing water in our creek

Many historic sites — mills, forts, trading centers, and battlegrounds — are found near our rivers and streams. Water was a key transportation route and critical to survival. Many not-yet-urbanized areas near our rivers and streams are treasure troves of history and healthy ecosystems, and regional land trusts throughout the southeastern US are valiantly trying to preserve what they can.

One group in the piedmont region just west of where I live is doing a particularly fine job of preserving special places. I only recently learned about the existence of the LandTrust for Central NC when I attended the annual meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation.

The LandTrust for Central NC is nationally accredited by the Land Trust Alliance — no small distinction, I assure you. They “work with private and public landowners to protect the special natural areas, family farms, and rural landscapes of Anson, Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Iredell, Montgomery, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, and Stanly Counties. “

I was so impressed after listening to the presentations of the Executive and Associate Directors of this organization at the meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation that I immediately visited the group’s Web site when I got home. I was not disappointed. In fact, I think it’s one of the most well-designed and useful Web sites for a conservation organization that I’ve seen. I was so impressed, I joined, and even more impressed when, a few weeks later, I received a 16-page color publication entitled “Field Notes, October 2014.” This publication listed the many accomplishments of the group this year, including the numerous hikes and other functions it sponsored for public participation.

To all you North Carolina piedmont gardeners who live in or near the counties covered by this group, I encourage you to visit their Web site and get involved in what they’re doing. Their work protects your gardens as well as the history and ecology of our wonderful region.

The publication featured an exciting project for which they are actively seeking funds. They’ve already received a substantial grant to provide more than half of what they need, but they still need more than $100,000 to purchase and secure the site, and this site has it all. Located just above the Yadkin River in Davidson County, the nationally significant 13-acre site’s biggest claim to fame is as the location of one of the last major Confederate victories in the Civil War. Over half of the original earthworks of the Confederate Fort York are still intact! Just below Fort York is the historic Trading Ford Area, a low-water crossing point used by Native Americans as a trading site. Nearby is the location where the Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, documented meeting a local Indian tribe in 1567 — twenty years before the Lost Colony was settled by the English. Fort York also overlooks the spot where Nathanial Greene and his troops narrowly escaped General Cornwallis’ army during the American Revolution.

Previous owners of the land appreciated the amazing historical significance of this area and have left it undisturbed, which means the native ecosystems on the land are also healthy and worthy of protection. Frankly, I’m amazed that local, state, and federal governments haven’t stepped in to protect this land. Thank goodness the LandTrust of Central North Carolina is on the job!

Please visit their Web site, read of their many accomplishments, and the many opportunities they offer the public to enjoy these preserved lands. Consider making a donation to this group this season. You’ll help preserve some very special piedmont places, and albeit indirectly, your gardens will benefit too.

Your garden pollinators will thank you!

Your garden pollinators will thank you!

 

 

 

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Sycamore Season

American Sycamore struts its stuff in the winter landscape.

American Sycamore struts its stuff in the winter landscape.

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a beautiful tree in any season, but winter is its season to shine in our piedmont landscapes. You’ll find this native giant in moist environments — floodplains and rich bottomlands. But it doesn’t like prolonged wetness, so you won’t see it in swamps. Because it is resistant to pollution, you’ll see it planted along urban and suburban streets, but this is a mistake. More about that a bit later.

I count myself lucky, because my giant Sycamores grow beside the creek that borders the eastern edge of my property. Every year after the forest casts off its leaves, winter sunrises and sunsets bring out the best in these trees. As the sun tops the ridge to my east in the morning, first the white-branched tops of the Sycamores begin to gleam. As the sun climbs higher, its beams move down the white trunks, setting them aglow in the barren winter landscape. As the sun sets each evening, the process reverses. I watch sunbeams work their way up the trunk until only the tree tops are glowing. When a winter sunset turns the clouds red and orange, the Sycamore trunks reflect these colors. This slow-motion painting of the Sycamores is one of my favorite moments in my winter landscape every year.

Exfoliating bark on lower trunks.

Exfoliating bark on lower trunks.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m a sucker for trees and shrubs with exfoliating bark. I think it adds a textural element while simultaneously increasing the color complexity of trunks and branches. No native forest giant exfoliates more dramatically than Sycamore. As trunks mature, they slough off chunks of gray-brown bark in large plates to reveal the smooth white inner bark, making older trees readily identifiable in the winter landscape from quite a distance.

The irregular branching structure of the canopy is also characteristic of this species.

The irregular branching structure of the canopy is also characteristic of this species.

This species is one of our larger native trees, regularly growing to heights of 75-100 feet. In Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, he notes these trees can get as tall as 150 feet. Only Tulip Poplars are routinely taller in our native landscape.

Sycamores are also known for their unusually wide trunks that achieve diameters greater than any of our other native trees. The present-day champion Sycamore is about 11 feet in diameter, but earlier giants were almost 15 feet. These giant older trees are often hollow, and before the landscape became full of the man-made structures they’re named for, Chimney Swifts nested in these massive hollow trees. In my area, there’s a well-known tale about a family of early English colonists who made their home within the shelter of a giant hollow Sycamore until they finished building their log cabin.

Sycamore fall leaf color.

Sycamore fall leaf color.

Sycamore fall leaf color is not dramatic, but I like the mix of warm golds and soft browns. Sycamore leaves are often quite large; their veins are palmately arranged, meaning they resemble the way fingers extend from the palms of our hands.

Freshly discarded Sycamore leaves hold their color for about a week before turning darker brown.

Freshly discarded Sycamore leaves hold their color for about a week before turning darker brown.

The numerous fruits look like Sweet Gum balls from a distance, but a closer look reveals they are not spiky, but soft. The seed balls usually hang on the trees until the end of the year. Some time in late winter after a number of rounds of freezing and thawing, a soft wind will tickle the fruits to release their seeds into the air. In my yard, I’ve noticed that all my Sycamores tend to release their seeds simultaneously. I’ll look out at my winter landscape and briefly think it’s snowing while millions of fluffy Sycamore seeds float in clouds through the landscape. The seeds are arranged around a hard small woody center that was used to make buttons by early colonists. One of the other common names for Sycamore is Buttonwood for this reason.

A discarded Sycamore leaf. They are thicker than many leaves, usually persisting intact through much of the winter.

A discarded Sycamore leaf. They are thicker than many leaves, usually persisting intact through much of the winter.

My research tells me that Sycamore wood’s interlocking fibers make it hard to split, so it was used in earlier times for handles, boxes, and other such items. Now the wood is mostly used for veneer, particle board, and pulp.

Michael Dirr advises us to enjoy Sycamores if they occur naturally in our landscape, but not to plant them along urban streets. Stressed trees are prone to fungal diseases, and even healthy trees constantly shed branches (hence the lovely long white trunks) — and those enormous leaves in autumn.

Another source tells me that Sycamore sap makes a pleasant drink, and can be boiled down into a syrup. However, the sugar content of Sycamore sap is much lower than it is in, say, a Sugar Maple, so harvesting it for syrup is not practical.

On my floodplain, the large Sycamores have many hollow spots where branches have naturally fallen off. I’ve noticed that woodpeckers make frequent uses of these spots for nesting sites. Several such Sycamore hollows have been “remodeled” by Pileated Woodpeckers. Their dark rectangular nesting holes are easy to spot in the white branches of a winter-bare Sycamore.

If you’ve got a spot in your landscape for this magnificent native tree, do give it a try. If you’re lucky enough to already have it occurring in your yard, be sure to appreciate its aesthetic qualities this winter. And keep an eye out for wildlife occupants. Humans are not the only animals who appreciate Sycamore’s many attributes.

The last autumn leaves were still clinging to my Sycamores only a week ago.

The last autumn leaves were still clinging to my Sycamores only a week ago.

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Protecting our Gardens

Monarch butterflies are less likely to visit your lantanas if  milkweeds to feed their caterpillars don't grow nearby.

Monarch butterflies are less likely to visit your lantanas if native milkweeds to feed their caterpillars don’t grow nearby.

Most avid gardeners understand that their home landscapes don’t grow in a botanical vacuum. Our little tomato patches, and rose and cottage gardens all grow within a larger context. In my case, that context is the southeastern piedmont region of the United States. It’s easy to forget this larger context when we are battling aphids on our tomatoes or worrying about black spots on our rose leaves, but it’s important not to forget.

Dragonflies need access to healthy wetlands for egg laying. In return, they scour the skies for pesky insects from dawn to dusk.

Dragonflies need access to healthy wetlands for egg laying. In return, they scour the skies for pesky insects from dawn to dusk.

I was reminded of the interconnectedness of the natural world and the increasing fragility of those connections when I recently attended the annual meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation (FOPC). This small nonprofit organization was created to help support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program (NCPCP), a tiny NC government group charged with conserving native plant species in their native habitats now and for future generations. David Welch, the Administrator of this NC program says his group is one of the only one of its kind in the country targeting the preservation of rare plant species. He says, “We’re breaking new ground, setting the standards in this field.”

Native Atamasco lilies are not rare or endangered, but they are harder to find in the wild, due to the destruction of their wetland habitats.

Native Atamasco lilies are not rare or endangered, but they are harder to find in the wild, due to the destruction of their wetland habitats.

This year’s meeting of the Friends of Plant Conservation focused on  the preservation status of rare plant species native to the piedmont region of North Carolina. You should visit the Web sites of the FOPC and NCPCP for all the details, but as I understand it, the ultimate goal of the NCPCP is to establish two preserves for each plant species on their list. They use data from the NC Natural Heritage Program to identify which plant species are most imperiled, and to learn where they are still known to exist.

Migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks won't stop at my feeders if the surrounding environment doesn't meet their requirements for native cover and food.

Migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks won’t stop at my feeders if the surrounding environment doesn’t meet their requirements for native cover and food.

 

The NCPCP divides my state into four regions: mountains, piedmont, inner coastal plain, and outer coastal plain. Currently, the NCPCP has 419 plant species on their list of plants they need to preserve; 21 of these are on the federal protection list. That breaks down to 177 mountain species, 87 piedmont species, 92 inner coastal plain species, and 157 outer coastal plain species. For those who are counting, that adds up to more than 419, because some of these rare species occur in more than one geographic region of NC.

At best, the NCPCP is managing to create one preserve a year. At the rate they’re going, many of the endangered species will likely be gone before the NCPCP can protect them. The FOPC is trying to help accelerate preserve creation by soliciting funds from the public, but they are a tiny, mostly unknown nonprofit. They need the help of every North Carolina lover of the natural world, which is why I’m writing about them today.

I recently read that young toads are dying in record numbers due to the infection of nonnative Japanese Stiltgrass in their habitats. The grass favors native wolf spiders, which lurk in the grass and kill and eat the young toads. Every link in the Web of life is affected when we break the chain via habitat destruction and change.

I recently read that young toads are dying in record numbers due to the invasion of nonnative Japanese Stiltgrass in their habitats. The grass favors native wolf spiders, which lurk in the grass and kill and eat the young toads. Every link in the web of life is affected when we break the chain via habitat destruction and change.

Early in this century, a number of federal and state programs existed that granted funds to organizations like the FOPC and NCPCP to enable them to do their work. But I learned at this meeting from Jason Walser, Executive Director of The Land Trust for Central North Carolina, that today only 10% of the funding once available for land protection is available today. Only ten percent!

Luna moths need healthy native forests to thrive.

Luna moths need healthy native forests to thrive.

Why should we gardeners care about preserving rare species? I can think of several reasons. First, as lovers of beauty and appreciators of the gifts plants bestow on us, we value the exquisite beauty of all plants, especially the rare ones. From an ecological perspective, rare and endangered species are the proverbial canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors in coal mines, miners carried canaries with them, because the birds were more sensitive to low oxygen levels than humans. If the canaries suddenly keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to evacuate the mine before they too died. The demise of rare plants usually points to environmental degradation. Factors such as pollution, habitat destruction via land clearing, habitat fragmentation, and the introduction of invasive non-native species are destroying the special environments that shelter these species. When they start disappearing, we know we are losing pieces of our ecosystems. No one knows how many links in the chain can disappear before the entire ecosystem fails. Personally, I don’t want to find out.

Once an abundant wildflower of the north slopes of piedmont forests, Bloodroot numbers  are dwindling due to habitat degradation. They aren't endangered yet, but current trends don't work in their favor.

Once an abundant wildflower of the north slopes of piedmont forests, Bloodroot numbers are dwindling due to habitat degradation. They aren’t endangered yet, but current trends don’t work in their favor.

As our native ecosystems are degraded, their health declines. When native plant species disappear, the native animals that need them — insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — also disappear. As gardeners, we should be paying attention, because this will affect our home landscapes. Butterfly gardens won’t get many visitors if the native plants their larvae require are gone. Other native pollinators — from mason bees to bumblebees to many species of wasps, flies, and beetles — require native ecosystems for their reproductive cycles. Without our native pollinators, fruit and vegetable production will decline as flowers fade without being pollinated. It is in the best interests of everyone who enjoys the natural world and/or likes to eat fruits and vegetables to start paying attention to what we are losing at an increasingly rapid pace.

Salamanders need clean, still water to protect and nurture their eggs.

Salamanders need clean, still water to protect and nurture their eggs.

Now that I know how few grant funding sources remain for the work of preserving and protecting our native ecosystems, I feel obliged to call upon my fellow plant-loving gardeners to step into the void. As we approach the traditional season of giving, I’m asking that you set aside a few dollars to give to one of the many struggling nonprofit groups trying to preserve as many links in the chains of our ecosystems as possible. I’m starting with North Carolina groups, because that’s where I live. I’ll be featuring some of the ones I support in the coming weeks, beginning today with the NC Friends of Plant Conservation.

Native plants and animals need healthy habitats to survive.

Native plants and animals need healthy habitats to survive.

You can get a sense of the kind of plants they’re protecting from their Web site, and from this blog by Rob Evans, Plant Ecologist with the NCPCP. Even small donations can make a big difference. As you can see from this page, even $25.00 is enough to pay for essential tools they need to protect the preserves.

We protect ourselves, our gardens, and those who come after us when we protect our native ecosystems. This year, please consider donating the money you were going to spend on a new plant or gardening tool for your yard to one of the many conservation nonprofit organizations valiantly working to protect us all.

Do you have a favorite conservation nonprofit? Feel free to tell me about it in a comment.

Do you have a favorite conservation nonprofit? Feel free to tell me about it in a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

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