On this American holiday when thoughts turn to food and family, I find myself thinking about my roots, especially the ancestors who shared my deep appreciation and respect for the botanical world.
My father’s kin were mostly cotton farmers, working the delta soils of the southern Mississippi River states. I imagine most of them saw the plant world as a means to an end, a way to feed their families, a key to survival.
No one typifies this tough, determined type of ancestor better than my 3rd great-grandmother Sarah. Sarah spent most of her adult life in a small town in Alabama. Widowed at the age of 24, she never remarried — highly unusual in those days. Instead, she managed the family farm herself, and presided over a town filled with kin who loved her. She brought in her last cotton crop at age 98. When she reached her 100th birthday, the town threw a party in her honor. To celebrate, she plowed a row or two behind a bull. Having proved, I imagine, that she was still a force to be reckoned with, she died later that year. I hope I inherited half of her grit.
My father, Sarah Ann’s 2nd great-grandson, was a dreamer, not a farmer. Perhaps because he grew up watching his kin scratch out hard lives in the fields, he turned his bright, clever mind to more intellectual pursuits, entering college by age 16. Charming, witty, and keenly intelligent, my father regularly teased me about my obsession with the plant world, which was well-established by my early 20s. At that time, he told me he had a black thumb, but I remembered when the gardening bug had bitten him hard.
I was ten or eleven, and my family lived in a small town in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. We had just moved to a newly built house at the very edge of a shiny suburb, a house of which both my parents were deeply proud. My father decided the yard needed more landscaping than the flowers my mother added to the bed around the front entry.
First, he planted a weeping willow tree just at the edge of the hilltop on which our house perched. It was the perfect location, where long trailing branches could dangle artfully, dancing in wayward breezes. He struggled to dig out a decent hole for it in the hard-packed red clay that passed for soil, but he managed it. The tree was still thriving when we moved away three years later.
Even more impressive than the willow tree addition was his determination to add what he called “a proper rose garden.” I can only guess that this was a fanciful, romantic notion from the many books he read. His mother and grandmothers never grew roses. No one without vast quantities of free time and a willingness to use chemicals grows tea roses in the humid climate of my region. But he did it.
First, he carefully marked out two semicircular beds facing each other. Then he dug out the clay to a depth of about three feet. I remember playing in the trenches before he filled them with rich topsoil and compost. He planted six hybrid tea roses in each semicircle, caring for them more tenderly than he did his own children. They were fussed over daily that first year. When they produced beautiful, fragrant blossoms of red, pink, yellow, and ivory, he proudly cut some to put in a vase on his desk at his office.
Then his fancy turned to something else; the roses were neglected, nearly dead by the time we moved away. My father never demonstrated any interest in gardening or the natural world again. It was as if he needed to prove to himself that he could do it, but it was always an intellectual pursuit. There was no love for plants in him.
My mother’s kin mostly worked in professions such as teaching and business pursuits. However, many of the women had a love of gardening, especially flower gardens — just like my mother. No one better typified this than my great-grandmother, Etta. Like Sarah, Etta was widowed at a relatively young age (37), and she did not remarry. Instead, her older children and other family members helped support her as she raised her youngest babes to adulthood in a boarding house she ran to earn income. When she died at age 79, her family wrote a loving obituary that ran in the local paper. From that, I learned that Etta was a gifted storyteller, a knack my mother also had, and one shared by her children. But most wonderful to me was this excerpt: ”She … enjoyed gardening in her yard as long as her health permitted. Later she was known for the beautiful house plants she grew.”
I had an “aha!” moment when I read this. Perhaps I am blessed with Etta’s plant-loving DNA. Like me, perhaps she couldn’t imagine a life without plants to nurture. Now I have an explanation for my lifelong passion — it’s genetic! Whether that’s true or not, I like to think that Etta smiles down on me from time to time as I wander my five acres, stroking fuzzy magnolia buds and telling the bald cypresses how magnificent their fluted trunks are becoming.
You may have guessed by now that I’ve been recently working on my genealogical roots. My parents didn’t leave behind many clues about their kin, but kind and knowledgeable distant and close kin have helped me quite a bit. I really hit the genealogical jackpot when I decided to have my DNA tested. Over a thousand cousins, many distant, some close, now prove my roots are deep — reaching back to the forests and fields of Colonial times — and wide — stretching up and down eastern North America, across the deep south, and up the Mississippi River.
Most wonderful to me are the closer cousins who share my interests. From cousins Carol and Tom, who are also writers, to cousin Ruth, a master gardener, and Vicki, who gardens for the hummingbirds. All my newly discovered kin are kind and generous souls, who have happily shared with me what they know about our common ancestors. Thanks so much, cousins.
So today, more than ever, I am grateful for roots. They hold me in place, stretching deeply through time and space, nurturing me with the gifts of good earth, blessing me with a love for stories, and an abiding passion for all the green world.
Where does the time go? Time and wind have stripped most of the trees bare. Only the stubborn oaks still cling to about half their leaves, biding their time, waiting for me to rake what’s fallen before they drop the rest on newly cleaned lawn. Some days I’m pretty sure I can hear them snickering at me.
Most of the winter birds are here now. I saw my first Dark-eyed Junco yesterday afternoon. It stopped by the bird bath attached to my back deck railing for a quick sip after a trip to the feeder. Soon the flocks of noisy American Robins still greedily stripping the Southern Magnolia cones of their fruits, will move on to warmer climes. Not a minute too soon from the looks of the forecast. Highs in the low 40s by Sunday, lows in the teens likely on my patch of Piedmont.
Tis the season to contemplate gardening gifts. First, of course, come the thanks for all the garden beauty and plenty that adorned our yards and filled our tables. Then it’s time to contemplate how we can share our love of gardening with others.
In past years, I’ve listed suggestions for publications and products you might want to consider as gifts for the gardeners on your list. This year, I’d like to suggest a few other options.
As my joints have grown creakier with time, I’ve come to realize how much older gardeners (ahem) appreciate the gift of help with their treasured plantings. Senior gardeners may still manage to plant new plants and pull weeds, but repetitive physical tasks like spreading fresh mulch or pruning large branches may be more than they can safely handle. The senior gardeners on your list would treasure a gift of able-bodied assistance, say, once a month, so that they can live with their beloved landscapes as long as possible.
If you are a senior gardener yourself, consider giving the gift of your gardening wisdom to others. Offer a younger family member your guidance and expertise as they plant their first shrubs, venture into tomato cultivation, or try growing fresh herbs indoors. Your years of experience are far more valuable than you may realize.
Don’t have any novice gardeners on your list? Give a gift to your community by volunteering at your favorite public garden or offering your expertise at a community garden. At the public garden where I volunteer, you don’t need to be an expert gardener to help. You merely need to appreciate the benefits of such places, and lend your enthusiasm to the nearly infinite tasks that such operations require.
Gardeners of any age can share the beauty of their gardens with those far away by giving photographs of their charges, or paintings or other forms of artistic expression, if you are so inclined.
The great thing about garden giving is that you receive far more than you give. Every time I help a novice gardener overcome her frustration with a challenge, or celebrate with her when she picks her first bean crop, or rose, her joy is my joy too.
Finally, consider giving gifts to preserve our dwindling natural gardens — the forests and fields filled with vegetation native to our region. In this age of rapid urbanization, these natural gardens need tending every bit as much as our backyard landscapes, if we want any wild lands, any natural beauty, to remain for future generations.
Consider giving donations to land conservation organizations in honor of those on your gift list. If you know someone on your list, for example, is an avid supporter of The Nature Conservancy, donate money in his name to that organization. Worthy organizations abound, and all are increasingly challenged to continue their good work on dwindling budgets.
Even if you don’t have a person in whose honor you’d like to donate, consider giving Mother Nature a gift by making a year-end donation to one or more of the many organizations working to preserve what’s left of our natural world, and to educate everyone on why this work is critical.
Personally, Wonder Spouse and I just made a year-end donation to the NC group trying to preserve one of the few remaining healthy stands of a mountain wildflower in danger of disappearing forever. I told you about their efforts to raise enough money to save a stand of Oconee Bells here.
I checked with the person spearheading this effort. They still need more than $100K to buy this unique piece of land from the current owners. Even if I never see this place with my own eyes, if we can save it, I will always know those wildflowers are still here on the planet, where botanists can study them, and future generations of visitors can be gobsmacked by their delicate splendor.
Garden gifts are gifts of life and beauty, investments for our children, treasures for all the world to cherish.
It was a mixed-results year for my Renee’s Garden flower seed trials. Top winners included the two nasturtium varieties I tried last year — Spitfire and Cup of Sun. They were so gorgeous last year that I just had to have them back again, and they did not disappoint. In fact, they exceeded all the expectations I had based on last year’s results. More on that in a moment.
The other big winner this year was a zinnia: Raggedy Anne. These are old-fashioned zinnias that produce long stems, making them ideal for cutting to use in indoor arrangements. I’ve had trouble with such zinnias in the past. Usually the heat and humidity of typical North Carolina Piedmont summers are too much for them. They bloom for a bit in early June, then succumb to fungal diseases and drought. Not this year.
Two factors likely played pivotal roles. First, the weather this past summer in my region was atypical. We never hit 100 degrees, nor the high 90s, even during the dog days of the season, and we never went into drought. I haven’t had a summer growing season without drought in over 15 years. I had truly forgotten what adequate rainfall can do for a garden — and, alas, the weeds — but that’s another story.
The other likely contributor to the success of the zinnias was the compost mix Wonder Spouse and I added to the vegetable/flower beds in the spring. This stuff was truly black gold; all the plants reveled in the nutritional bounty of this supplement.
How happy were the zinnias? I started one batch early in my greenhouse, transplanting them out in late April. They were blooming by mid-May, and they didn’t stop until our first freeze killed them in mid-October. And they eventually grew as tall as the sunflowers I tried this year — well over 7 feet high. These were sturdy-stemmed plants that lifted abundant, constantly produced large zinnia flowers to the sky without any support from me. I actually had to stand on a stool to cut the final flowers before the cold got them. They were amazing.
So pleased was I with the transplanted bunch of Raggedy Annes that I direct-sowed the remaining seeds in the package. This is usually highly risky, but the abundant rainfall ensured nearly 100% germination. Then I had two tall patches of rainbow-colored flowers, most 3-4 inches across, in shades of cream, orange, yellow, and pink. Forms varied from more cactus-type flowers to what I think of as traditional zinnia shapes.
They made wonderful cut flowers too, lasting at least a week indoors. I was able to create several lovely zinnia-based arrangements that I presented as hostess gifts at various events over the season. I’ll probably try this variety again, just to see what kind of results I get during a more typical growing season. Although, maybe, if I’m very lucky, adequate rainfall will become typical of my summer weather again. How great would that be?
As for the nasturtiums, the rain and compost gave Spitfire the enthusiasm of that notorious southern invader, kudzu. Seriously, after the tomatoes and beans surrendered to fungal diseases in August, Spitfire vines took over those trellises. Paths were swallowed, orange, subtly fragrant blossoms dangled in abundance from rounded leaves the size of saucers. I was actually relieved when the freeze turned them into mush, fearing I had unleashed a monster.
Last year, the beautiful nasturtium, ‘Cup of Sun’, surrendered to the drought by early August. This year, it continued to flourish until the freeze. Cup of Sun isn’t a climber, so it remained a much more polite plant, confining itself to the beds where it was planted. I love the subtle variations in color in this variety.
Having proved their worthiness across two vastly different growing seasons, I suspect these nasturtiums will remain a part of my vegetable garden for the indefinite future. I may not even need to plant them next year. I noticed seed pods all over the garden. I direct-sowed both nasturtium varieties when my soil had warmed enough to plant the bean seeds. They took it from there without any further aid from me.
Because I like variety, I decided to try a sunflower seed mix from Renee’s Garden this year. I chose Sunflower ‘Royal Flush Bi-Color.’ Direct-sowed seeds yielded 100% germination in my moist compost-enriched garden. Plants shot up straight and tall, topping out at about 6 feet.
Flower size was moderate — large enough to make an impact, but not so large as to be too heavy to stand upright without support. Most, but not all, of the flowers were bi-colors, producing two-tone blossoms in a range of yellows, oranges, and reds.
As always, the sunflowers were reliable pollinator magnets. Several bees always lingered on them, and during the height of the swallowtail butterfly population explosion, those beauties competed with the bees for spots on the sunflowers.
These blossoms are supposed to be good for cutting too, but I never do it. I never seem to have that many, and unlike the zinnias, these plants die after the first flush of flowers. Still, I love their lofty enthusiasm, and most summers, they are the tallest flowers in the garden.
I might try this variety again, but Renee’s Garden always offers so many tempting sunflower varieties that I might feel obliged to try yet another one.
The other Renee’s Garden flower varieties I tried were not as successful. Because they were so resiliently lovely despite the drought and heat of last year, I tried Cosmos ‘Little Ladybirds’ again. They did not like the abundant rains of this past season, remaining small, blooming unenthusiastically, and eventually expiring from a fungal disease.
I tried sowing Salvia ‘Coral Nymph’ and Monarda ‘Butterfly Bergamot’ in the greenhouse. I do this successfully with many flower varieties, herbs, etc. However, despite quick germination, I could not persuade the salvia to thrive. All the seedlings eventually died of fungus problems. I had a few seeds left, and decided to direct-sow them in the garden. One germinated and managed to bloom. The flowers were lovely, the plant didn’t seem to be strong enough to stand up without support. I never managed to get a good photo of it before it expired.
The monarda variety struggled in the greenhouse, but I managed to raise about six plants to transplanting size. Monardas are notoriously susceptible to fungal diseases in my region, so I was not surprised with the problems I had with these seedlings. However, once they settled into the compost-rich garden, the plants grew tall, flowering beautifully.
As readers of this blog know, I love purple flowers, so I was thrilled with these beauties. Alas, after three days of blooming, we got another rain. The plants almost melted before my eyes, becoming piles of green mush, victims of the rampant fungal diseases that flourished during the rain-soaked summer.
Finally, I’ve always been an admirer of Cornflowers. I think my appreciation began with the crayon named for this flower’s color in the big boxes of crayons that I loved during childhood. When I saw Renee’s Garden was offering Cornflower ‘Blue Boy,’ I had to try it. I was disappointed. In their defense, I suspect the rain and compost were at least partly responsible for the rampant growth of this variety. Plants grew three feet tall before they began to produce flowers.
Flower size was small, relative to the size of the giant green plants, nearly disappearing. The plants all flopped over, reducing the impact of the flowers further. Perhaps a drier year would produce different results, but I am disinclined to find out.
This concludes my two-part review of the Renee’s Garden seeds I tried this year. I want to thank this fine establishment for offering members of the Garden Writers Association like me the opportunity to try their products for free. Without this chance, I would never have discovered the subtle beauty of a planting of Nasturtium ‘Cup of Sun,’ or the relentless productivity of Zinnia ‘Raggedy Anne.’ Thanks, Renee’s Garden. I hope you’ll give me the chance to try a few new varieties next growing season.
Last growing season, Renee’s Garden offered me the chance to try a few free seed varieties. As a member of the Garden Writers Association, vendors of garden-related items occasionally send me free samples of their products, in the hopes that I will review them favorably. I was very happy with the results of the free seeds that Renee’s Garden sent me last year. You can read my reviews in Part 1 and Part 2.
This year when I received my order form for free seeds, I decided to add a few vegetables to my Renee’s Garden trials. Today’s entry covers my results with these vegetable varieties.
As you likely know if you’re reading here, vegetable gardening is the fastest growing area of interest for new gardeners. Analysts speculate that this interest is driven in part by folks who want access to high-quality vegetables at reasonable prices. Whatever the reason, I think it’s wonderful that more newbie gardeners are out in their yards playing in the dirt. I tried a beet variety, two carrots, a spinach, and a pepper mix.
Beet, Dutch “Red Baron”
I always grow Red Ace beets, because they do well for me every year, and I like their sweet, robust flavor. As a comparison, I tried Red Baron from Renee’s Garden. Beets don’t really transplant well, so I always direct-sow them into the vegetable beds. Germination rates for the two varieties were both high; if anything, Red Baron did slightly better. Vigor of the plants also appeared to be nearly identical. In fact, if I hadn’t labeled my rows, it would have been easy to mix them up based only on top growth. However, differences in flavor readily distinguish Red Baron from Red Ace.
This was not my best year for root crops. I think perhaps uncharacteristically heavy spring rains may have had something to do with this. Still, when it became clear that summer heat was asserting itself, root crop yields were respectable.
Between Red Ace and Red Baron beets, Red Ace had a much sweeter flavor, but we found that we liked Red Baron too. Red Baron beets were earthier, more hearty, in flavor. I think they would be the basis of a delicious borscht. Red Ace beets are better suited to salads. I would grow Red Baron again.
Carrot, Nantes “Starica” & Carrot, Snacking “Rotild”
As you can see in the above photo, many of the carrots did not grow as optimally as I’d like. Most of what you see are the Renee’s Garden varieties. They grew more robustly than the several carrot varieties I tried from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which surprised me. Johnny’s offers pelleted carrot seeds, which makes these tiny seeds easier to handle while planting. I am able to space the seeds in the row far enough apart that they don’t require much thinning as they grow.
Renee’s Garden carrot seeds were not pelleted. I ended up doing major thinning to their rows. Interesting to me, Renee’s carrot seeds germinated at much higher rates than Johnny’s pelleted seeds, which is why I ended up with more of those varieties at harvest. I’ve never had such poor germination results with pelleted carrots before; I’m not sure why this happened.
As for flavor, despite their less-than-lovely looks, these Nantes-type varieties were both tasty. Starica was sweeter than Rotild.
Spinach, “Summer Perfection”
The blurb about this Dutch spinach variety sold by Renee’s Garden states that it “stands up to early summer heat.” I’m thinking that Dutch and/or California (location of Renee’s Garden) early summer heat must be a pale imitation of North Carolina Piedmont early summer heat. Summer Perfection bolted fast and early for me, just as soon as our high temperatures hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e., late March).
I grew this variety, along with all my other greens, beneath a canopy of spun garden cloth. The transplants went in before the last frost and were protected by the garden cloth. As temperatures rose, the garden cloth shaded the greens. I think this system (aided by phenomenal spring rains) kept some of the greens going into May — an unprecedented growing season for me!
Summer Perfection leaves were delicious before they bolted, but the variety is probably not worth growing in my climate. They just don’t last long enough to provide a sufficient return on my investment in them.
Pepper, Italian Sweet “Sunset Mix”
Every year, I grow a hybrid variety of Sweet Italian pepper called Carmen. Plants are consistently vigorous, overwhelmingly productive, and the scarlet fruits are reliably sweet, zinging the palate with a vitamin C tang. So when I saw that Renee was offering an heirloom mix of the pepper type from which Carmen is derived, I was curious, especially since I was promised plants with yellow or red fruits.
I have a love-hate relationship with most heirloom plants. In the southeastern US where I garden, our fungal diseases and insect pests are numerous and often devastating, and our summers are usually brutally hot and frequently plagued by drought. Most heirloom varieties I’ve tried start out strongly, but soon succumb to the growing challenges of my region.
I sow pepper and tomato seeds in my greenhouse and transplant them into their summer beds when growing conditions stabilize. Peppers especially don’t do well if you transplant them before nighttime temperatures stop dipping into the low 50s. The germination rate for Sunset Mix was about 60%. I routinely get 100% germination from Carmen seeds, and that was the case again this past spring. I attributed the difference to the hybrid vigor of Carmen and was not really surprised.
Vigor of the transplants was good. Sunset Mix plants grew as tall as the Carmens. Each plant produced a fair amount of fruit, but not at the hybrid vigor levels of my Carmen plants. As you can see by the harvest basket photo above, Sunset Mix produced some nice-looking peppers. Their flavors were good, but had much more bite than Carmen fruits. I found that Sunset Mix peppers did not always please my digestive system, while the milder, sweeter Carmen fruits never bothered me. I donated most of the Sunset Mix fruits to friends and the local food bank, where they were much appreciated.
I would not grow any of these varieties again, except perhaps the Red Baron beets. Even though the carrots were productive, they didn’t seem to appreciate my soil. I’ve had much better success with other carrot varieties. The spinach bolted so fast that I deem it to have been a waste of bed space. The peppers, although productive, just couldn’t match the flavor and productivity of my Carmen hybrid plants.
Still, my garden is big enough to accommodate a few experiments, and I will continue to try a few varieties that intrigue me. I never know when I might stumble on a treasure worth adding to my list of essential varieties.
Coming soon: Results of this year’s trials with Renee’s Garden flower seeds.
Pardon my silence, loyal readers. It’s that time of year, when freeze warnings pop up for my region, and Wonder Spouse and I must scramble to prepare our yard and gardens for their winter sleep.
First up last weekend was the water feature in our front garden. It was full of murky greenish water. We knew we’d need to catch and relocate the two Green Frogs who lived there most of the summer, but we were surprised to find that about 50 or so tadpoles were still alive and well and not yet ready for metamorphosis. Some had sprouted back legs, but most were still fully tadpole in form. We spent over an hour painstakingly scooping up tadpoles as the pond drained to reveal their hiding spots. I have no idea what species of tadpoles we moved, but they seemed to be at least two different sizes, colors, and shapes.
Frogs and tadpoles were relocated temporarily to a bucket filled with pond water. When we were sure we had all of them, Wonder Spouse carried them down to a small pond on our floodplain, where he gently poured them out. We know it’s tricky for them to make their way into territory already claimed by other amphibians, but we figured at least this way they have some chance to survive.
They can’t stay in the water feature all winter. If we happen to have one of our colder winters, the water would freeze throughout, cracking the pond, and killing anything trying to overwinter in it. When Spring warms the air, we are always surprised at how quickly frogs and toads find the newly re-filled water feature. It is a favored courting and egg-laying spot in our yard, probably because it is more protected from predators than the pond or creek on the floodplain. Nothing says spring like a raucous nighttime serenade by amorous amphibians.
Reptiles in our yard move themselves to their winter homes. Many seem to prepare for winter hibernation by shedding their skins. We found several two-foot-plus-long recently shed skins from our resident Black Racers. One lives in the rock wall holding up the beds around my greenhouse. Another lives somewhere beneath our front deck, and I know several others nest somewhere on or near the floodplain. I encounter them on patrols every few weeks during the warm months.
Suddenly visible in great numbers again are the Green Anoles. About a dozen of these color-changing lizards spent last winter living around the west-facing front of our house and the south-facing wall of our garage. They dispersed when the weather warmed. I’d occasionally meet one hunting among my flowers or vegetables, but otherwise, they seemed to have disappeared. But now, my goodness, they are not only back, they have multiplied.
A number of them seem to also be shedding summer skins, as you can see here on this one I spotted on the corner of the garage:
At least a dozen anoles have reappeared along the west-facing entry to our house. We now must check our screen doors before opening inner doors, lest a dozing anole drop into the house. A recently acquired pot of chrysanthemums by the front entry has been adopted as a favorite resting spot.
Every warm sunny afternoon, they emerge from their hiding spots to catch a few rays.
This year, I’ve spotted a least three anoles enjoying our back deck, which faces south and is protected from west winds. They even seem to be enjoying our deck chairs.
Sometimes, they join the squirrels in watching the humans indoors:
Of course, freeze warnings mean it’s time to relocate all summering potted plants to their winter quarters in the greenhouse. The pitcher plants and sedges that live in pots inside the water feature all summer get moved into individual trays that hold water. I refill them regularly, so that their favored moisture levels are maintained.
All the potted plants that spend their summer beneath the shelter of the Southern Magnolia also move into the greenhouse, along with pots of still-flowering annuals on the back deck. By the time we move in the deck plants later today, the greenhouse will be very full.
A packed greenhouse is actually better for the plants. Humidity levels are easier to maintain, and any insects or other critters who succeeded in hitching rides on the plants don’t usually cause much trouble. One year, a Cope’s Gray Treefrog snuck in for the winter. He just dozed quietly through the cold months until I moved him and his pot back outside the following spring. I keep my greenhouse cool all winter, so that plants mostly sleep but don’t freeze.
The plants growing on our five acres don’t need any help from me to prepare for winter. The Tulip Poplars have already dropped most of their leaves. Berries on the native dogwoods are almost gone, thanks to flocks of marauding American Robins and hungry Pileated Woodpeckers. They have moved on to the Southern Magnolia. Most of its seed cones are open now, revealing tasty red fruits coveted by wildlife of all kinds. I can lose an hour quickly this time of year just watching birds and other critters argue over magnolia fruits.
Fall color grows more glorious daily, of course. I’ll show you some examples soon. Right now, I’ve got to get the potted plants on the back deck tucked into the greenhouse. The weather seers are calling for a freeze tomorrow night. At my house, that likely means lows in the mid-twenties. Time to break out the extra blanket for the bed, find my cozy winter slippers, and wait for next season’s seed catalogs to start filling my mailbox.
Humanity world-wide loses a piece of itself every time we lose more of the natural world that nurtures and protects us. When we destroy the natural world, we lose pieces of our soul, the part of us that thrives on the beauty of a cool mountain breeze kissing our faces, the melodic chatter of a clear-running stream, and the exquisite call of a Wood Thrush echoing through a healthy forest. Our hearts are so much smaller without our connection to the beauty of the natural world.
In the southeastern Piedmont region of NC where I live, the natural world is under assault every hour of every day. The population of my region is soaring, mostly due to the arrival of many new residents from other parts of the US and the world. As people move in, the forests I grew up with are disappearing. The dwindling patches left are degrading rapidly, due in large part to the invasion of an increasing number of non-native invasive exotic species of plants, animals — especially devastatingly damaging insects — and diseases.
One casualty of this urbanizing landscape — throughout the US — is the Monarch butterfly. My generation grew up knowing this beautiful creature — one of the most recognizable species of butterflies in North America. In school, we learned about their life cycle, admired their emerald green chrysalises, and marveled at their annual migrations to Mexico. Every gardener who plants with butterflies in mind knows that species of milkweed are the only plants that Monarch caterpillars will eat, so we tuck them into our yards to ensure Monarch visits.
However, in recent years — and most especially this year — our milkweeds have been uneaten by the colorful Monarch caterpillars. In my yard, I’ve only seen two adult Monarch butterflies during the entire growing season. Wonder Spouse took the photos of the one in this post last week. We were so excited when we spotted it in our front garden that we dropped what we were doing and ran for our cameras.
Many experts believe that Monarch butterflies are in serious trouble. Much of the reason is probably habitat destruction, both in North America and in their winter homes in Mexico. You can read an article about their decline here.
Monarch butterflies are well known and loved, and still they are in trouble. Multiply their peril a thousand-fold for a delicately exquisite, extremely rare wildflower: Oconee Bells.
Oconee Bells live in just a couple of spots along a geographic region known as the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. This part of the Blue Ridge Mountains rises abruptly up from the piedmont regions of South and North Carolina, creating a remarkable rise in land elevation over a short distance. The region is also characterized by very narrow gorges; at their bottoms, sunlight never penetrates, and temperature and moisture levels remain remarkably steady.
Such areas possess unique microclimates that an astonishing array of species of plants and animals have exploited. So much so, in fact, that this region holds more than three times the number of plant and animal species than undisturbed rainforests in Central and South America. The diversity of life is astounding, and tightly adapted to the unique geography and microclimates of this region.
The Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment is beginning to be degraded by the intrusion of concrete and asphalt, consequently destroying the delicate ecology of gorge bottoms, where Oconee Bells live. Deforestation on the ridge tops leads to massive erosion down the sides of the steep gorges. In some cases, the Oconee Bells living at the bottom have been scoured from their homes by water cascading down eroded ridge tops.
Oconee Bells were never plentiful, and now their increasing rarity makes them coveted by gardeners who want to possess every rare and beautiful plant they can. Oconee Bells are almost impossible to propagate; growing conditions cannot vary for them at all. Thus, plants sell for very high prices, making them a target of plant poachers.
In North Carolina, we have plant poacher problems at both ends of our state. On the coast, they steal into our preserves at night to dig up Venus Fly Traps. This species, native only to a 75-mile area around Wilmington, NC, is successfully propagated in the horticulture trade. Even so, plant poachers steal thousands, degrading their habitats at the same time.
In our mountains, plant poaching is worse. Folks illegally collect our native ginseng, goldenseal, and other wildflowers known for their medicinal properties. They steal Oconee Bells for covetous gardeners. They do not care that they may eliminate a plant population from a site. They see dollar signs, not irreplaceable beauty.
In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a group in our government with an important mission:
The Mission of the Plant Conservation Program is to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.
Three individuals comprise this department. They are working to identify and protect the rarest and most threatened plant species in the state. They’ve identified plant populations all over the state. That’s a big job for three people. Fortunately, they have help.
The Friends of Plant Conservation is a non-profit organization founded explicitly to support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program. Members volunteer to help manage and protect the preserves created by the Plant Conservation Program by participating in activities such as work days devoted to clearing out competing vegetation. They also provide essential financial support, since, like every governmental department in NC, the Plant Conservation Program’s budget does not begin to pay for the work that needs doing.
Right now, the Friends of Plant Conservation are frantically trying to raise enough money to pay for the purchase of land holding the last healthy population of Oconee Bells in North Carolina — the last natural population of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla in the world. The owners of this property love and appreciate this unique wildflower, and they’ve agreed to sell it, at cost, to NC to create a preserve. The owner who has protected this population from poachers and who cherished his land recently died after a long illness. His heirs wish to honor his memory by fulfilling his dream of creating this preserve for Oconee Bells. Time is critical. Funds are short.
An anonymous lover of natural beauty has recently stepped forward and is offering to match all donations — four dollars for every dollar donated. Imagine — a donation of $100 will become $500. For once, perhaps beauty can be saved.
To learn more about this wildflower and how to send your donation to save beauty, please go here. Even small donations will make a difference, thanks to the anonymous matching donor.
Of course, saving rare species like Oconee Bells, and suddenly declining species, like the Monarch Butterfly, is about much more than saving beauty. Scientists compare these imperiled species to canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors, miners carried caged canaries. The canaries were more sensitive to drops in oxygen levels than humans. When the canaries keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to escape the same fate.
No animal or plant exists in a vacuum. They are parts of ecosystems, intricate groupings of species that evolved together and depend on each other in ways that are still not fully understood. Scientists do know that every time another species disappears from the delicate dance of an ecosystem, remaining species are also imperiled. No one knows how many species can disappear before the dance stops.
The natural world feeds us, body and soul. Please follow the link provided above, and if you can help save this uniquely special place, know that you will become an invaluable contributor to saving Oconee Bells, and a piece of our souls as well.
You’re in luck, loyal blog readers. Wonder Spouse found himself with some time this weekend, and he spent much of it post-processing the backlog of yard and garden photos that he had accumulated. All of the shots in this entry were taken in one morning in early September, as summer plants were fading, and autumn fruits and flowers were starting to appear. Remember that you can click on any photo to see a larger version.
Late summer through early fall is the peak bloom period for one of my favorite moisture-loving wildflowers: Jewelweed. Here’s a clump blooming on our floodplain:
You really need a close view to appreciate the delicate beauty of the flowers:
Late summer is always adorned with lobelias in my yard. Some are planted deliberately, but many randomly pop up without any input from me. I do take the ripe seed pods each fall and walk about the yard sprinkling tiny cinnamon-colored seeds as I go.
Equally breath-taking are the Great Blue Lobelias — same genus as the Cardinals, but a different species.
Seed production was getting serious in early September when Wonder Spouse took these photos. Check out his gorgeous close-up of a Bigleaf Magnolia Seed Cone:
The Jack-in-the-Pulpits in the wetland still held on to their ragged-looking leaves, but they were being pulled down by the weight of their bright red fruits.
One Joe Pye Weed cluster was still blooming just a bit:
While a large one in the front yard was all feathery seed head:
The seeds of these River Oats made a nice resting spot for this little butterfly.
I don’t think I’ve ever written about my Garlic Chives. This easy-to-grow herb sends up lovely flowers every late summer. The leaves have a more assertive onion flavor than Chives.
Pollinators always swarm the Garlic Chive flowers when they open.
As is always the case, we encountered a few animal residents as we wandered our five acres that morning.
And, finally, to close this impressive display of Wonder Spouse’s photographic skills, one of our many dragonflies. This large one was briefly resting on our TV cable line high above us, making for a positively artistic shot.