One minute, summer sun kisses green leaves, flowers abound, birds sing. Then you blink, and color happens.
For some plants, color comes in patches at first.
Or this ornamental spirea:
Fall fruits droop heavy on branches, then tumble to earth.
The native Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) has finally dropped all its nuts. For a few weeks, walking beneath it required a hard hat.
This past Tuesday, a strong cold front approached. Thick clouds darkened the sky, winds blew in gusts, twirling falling leaves into eddies of gold and red. Later that day, the rains came — almost two inches. The trees that always abandon their leaves first took the winds, rain, and ensuing cold air as their cue.
The first native trees to bare their branches for winter in my yard are always the Ashes. Ash trees dominate the active portion of our floodplain — about an acre or so. I think they’re probably Green Ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), but local experts tell me this species often interbreeds with other native Ash species, so I’m not certain.
Their fall color is subtle, but they do cast a distinctive yellow-green glow to the canopy just before they discard their summer clothes.
Ashes are not the first trees most folks notice when walking through their native moist habitats, but they are key components. Their numerous seeds are devoured by many bird species, including Wood Ducks. The larvae of several of our more colorful southeastern US butterflies eat Ash leaves, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Orange Sulfur, and one of my favorites, Mourning Cloak. This beauty has dark wings edged in deep gold; I count myself lucky when I spot one or two floating through my floodplain, usually on warm late-winter days, when the over-wintered adults begin seeking mates.
Ashes are easy to identify. They have compound leaves. Botanists define a compound leaf as consisting of a set of leaflets. For example, Poison Ivy has a compound leaf. Those “leaves of three” we all look for actually comprise one leaf. Look for a longer leaf stem (a petiole) that attaches the multi-leaflet leaf to a branch.
A casual observer might confuse the compound leaves of Ash trees with those of another Piedmont forest regular — Hickory, but a closer look is all you need to tell the difference. Ash leaves are attached to branches directly opposite each other. This opposite-leaved arrangement is less common in our native trees and shrubs. A single-leaved tree with opposite leaves that we all know is our native Dogwood. Hickory leaves alternate on the branch, plus most have fewer leaflets per leaf than Ash leaves.
After the rains blasted through, the next day, most the Ashes on my floodplain were bare. In the blink of an eye, their subtle color was gone.
This year as the Ashes performed their vanishing act, I got a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t help but wonder if this will be the last year I am able to enjoy their subtle drama. Why?
The Emerald Ash Borer, a non-native, devastating tiny insect, has a confirmed presence in a few NC Piedmont counties just north of mine. This insect has already killed every native Ash tree in many of our northern states. Every single one. They do it in one year. Experts have no idea how to stop them. Here’s the latest information from the NC Forest Service on this Ash-killing bug. Follow the links on that site to learn more.
A key take-away message about preventing the spread of Emerald Ash Borer and several other devastating non-native insects is about firewood. It is critical that any firewood you buy be from local, uninfected trees. Unfortunately, the firewood industry is not closely regulated. Recently dead trees look like a prime source of money to firewood purveyors. More than half the states in the US, including all of the Southeast, have imposed some firewood movement restrictions. Click on your state on this map to see what restrictions apply for you.
Ignorance is our greatest enemy in the fight to save our Ash trees. If you buy firewood, I urge you to learn what counties in your state are still considered safe sources of uncontaminated firewood. Be wary of pre-packaged firewood sitting outside grocery and hardware stores. Odds are it was shipped in from somewhere else. Ask the store manager where the firewood came from, and if he or she doesn’t know, tell them why you won’t be buying from them.
In my area during every impending cold spell, I’ll see folks selling pick-up trucks full of firewood in parking lots. Firewood sales are a supplemental source of income for most of these folks; many of them probably have no knowledge of the restrictions on where they should be collecting their firewood. In North Carolina, no one should be buying or selling firewood from Granville, Vance, or Person counties outside the boundaries of these counties. They are quarantined due to the confirmed presence of the Emerald Ash Borer. Here are the areas in the US with currently imposed Emerald Ash Borer quarantines.
Unless the experts devise a way to kill this insect in the next few months, it is just a matter of a year, perhaps two, before every Ash tree on my property — about a dozen 75-foot trees — will be dead. Their absence in the landscape will be visible to even the most casual observer. What will be less obvious is the disruption in the Piedmont ecosystem where these trees occur. Birds and insects that evolved to rely on Ash trees as a food source will go hungry. If they cannot adapt to other food sources, they will die trying to find Ash trees elsewhere.
No one knows how many components of an ecosystem can disappear before the viability of the entire ecosystem is destroyed, so that the remaining components die. Think of it as an ecosystem-scale game of Jenga. Sooner or later, the wrong piece is removed, and the entire structure fails.
In the blink of an eye, our native Ashes may disappear. How many more blinks before our native forests are gone too?
A good friend of mine and her significant other recently purchased and moved into a lovely new home in an adjacent county. They invited me out earlier this week to help them understand what’s growing on their 3-acre patch of Piedmont. I confess, I was a bit envious.
Their home backs onto state park land that protects a scenic river. This land has been covered in Piedmont forest for probably about 100 years now. Most likely before that it was farms and forests, and the forests were certainly regularly logged. That’s pretty much the story of land use for all of the southeastern Piedmont.
Unlike my home, which is on an increasingly busy road (a country by-way when we first moved here), theirs is quite a ways from the nearest main thoroughfare, accessed via a maze of well-established roads filled with nothing but mostly older houses. Frequent speed bumps likely discourage any non-residents from using these roads.
The result? My friend’s new home environment is noticeably quieter than mine. And the vegetation growing on her land and the adjoining protected forest made me long for my childhood days, when all the forests around here looked like that one — mostly anyway.
Her home sits atop a Piedmont ridge. Steep slopes on two sides fall down toward intermittent drainage ways that feed the river below. Large white oaks dominate the landscape; this year’s crop of acorns littered the ground. Mixed among the oaks were tulip poplars, red maples, sweet gums, sourwoods, dogwoods, redbuds, elms, viburnums, and a few mature loblolly pines — in short, all the native species I expect in such an environment.
But in addition to this mix of obviously healthy native plants, what struck me most was what wasn’t there: invasive non-native plants. I only saw two species, and both are likely still controllable if my friends take aggressive action immediately: Japanese Stiltgrass, and Privet.
Just for comparison, in my five-acre yard, I’m fighting those two species and:
We started battling a new invader this year: Oriental Bittersweet. As is true of most of our most pernicious invaders, this non-native vine was planted in the southeastern US for the ornamental value of its abundant, colorful berries. Alas, these berries are beloved by birds. They have “deposited” the seeds all over our southeastern forests. I was horrified when I visited the North Carolina mountains a year or so ago and discovered this invasive vine was snarling vast acreages of once lovely mountain forest.
This evil vine established a beachhead on my property beneath a native dogwood adjacent to my busy road. This mature dogwood produces abundant crimson berries every autumn, and I am certain that birds dining on the dogwood berries excreted the Oriental Bittersweet seeds that took root beneath the tree. It disguised itself among a bed of poison ivy that I was ignoring, which is how it became well-established. Wonder Spouse sprayed it with herbicide last spring, which knocked it back considerably. But it’s still there, biding its time until I forget about it. But I am determined that this latest invader will not gain permanent residence on our land.
I’m also watching for what is likely the inevitable incursion of kudzu. It dominates the property directly across the street from me. It would have crossed the road to my land years ago if the state didn’t mow it off the road every growing season. I can feel it plotting its invasion, perhaps via the drainage pipes beneath the bridge on my road that permits access for the creek that adjoins our property.
I know I’m not the only Piedmont homeowner battling invasive non-native plants. My blog has recently been visited by a number of viewers searching for information on controlling invasive plants. I have reluctantly concluded that unless your invader is just establishing itself in your yard, trying to pull it up manually will not control it. Herbicides seem to be the only option that will work in most cases. In my yard, deer will nibble on English Ivy in the dead of winter, but they never touch the Japanese Stiltgrass. I’ve read that even goats — known for happily devouring ivy, kudzu, and most any other plant in their paths — will not eat Japanese Stiltgrass.
Japanese Stiltgrass is creeping up the slopes of my friend’s new yard, working its way up from the intermittent drainage way below. That’s its favorite mode of transportation — water, which is why my floodplain is so plagued by it. I’ve resisted herbicides for fear of what they will do to my abundant frogs and salamanders, and the few fish still inhabiting my creek. But the literature states that the key is to use herbicides that do not contain an ingredient called a surfactant, because this is what causes the poison to stick to wildlife and hurt it. This link suggests herbicides that will kill this grass and are supposed to be safe in wetlands.
Wonder Spouse and I are planning on trying this weapon against our increasing infestation of Japanese Stiltgrass. I felt better about trying this weapon after talking with the curator of the Habitat Gardens at the NC Botanical Garden. She told me that she’s using it in her yard to battle this invader. She said the secret is to apply the herbicide consistently for five years — the amount of time the seeds of this grass remain viable in the soil.
I hate using herbicides, but there is no way Wonder Spouse and I can manually remove the invaders fast enough to prevent their spread on my land. I’m going to encourage my friend to begin using them now to prevent her from having my kind of problems. Right now, her land — the property that afflicted me with temporary forest envy — is about 20 years behind mine in invasive plant incursions. It’s been protected by the large stretch of contiguous forest it adjoins and its distance from major roads. But they must remove all the privet hedges planted by the previous owner immediately. And they must start applying wetland-safe herbicides to their Japanese Stiltgrass now — before their yard starts looking like mine.
For those of you wondering why I am so passionate on this issue, I refer you to my previous posts on this topic here and here and here. I truly believe that this is a battle we cannot afford to lose, folks.
Those of you who have read my blog for a while may have noticed that when I fall in love with a native genus of plants, I tend to want to grow at least several different species in that genus, usually because I think the plants are beautiful, and because I like to see how many of these natives I can site well enough to flourish in my yard. Basically, I like to experiment. I’ve done this with southeastern US native deciduous Magnolia species, and with southeastern native deciduous azalea species. In both of these cases, the plants are beautiful and provide three or four seasons of visual interest.
Not so for my latest experiment. At this year’s plant sale at the NC Botanical Garden, I took advantage of their offerings of native milkweed species, because I’m eager to try to help the Monarch butterfly population. As I wrote here, Monarch butterfly populations appear to be declining precipitously, probably mostly due to habitat destruction, although other factors are also relevant. Monarchs only lay their eggs on species of native milkweeds. These plants contain toxins that Monarch caterpillars can process, but avian predators find the toxins make the caterpillars inedible, even when they metamorphose into winged adults.
A few of our native milkweeds produce flowers worthy of any garden. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) can be found in many plant nurseries. With proper siting, both will thrive in most Piedmont gardens. The flowers attract numerous pollinators, and in my yard, the Monarch butterflies usually show up in early autumn to lay eggs on the plants, usually after the flowers have morphed into the long seed pods characteristic of the genus. The caterpillars usually strip almost every leaf off the plants, then turn into emerald chrysalises attached to nearby vegetation.
As a gardener, I routinely assess plants not only for their visual impact in my landscape, but also for their growing requirements. In the case of native milkweeds, I soon realized that they fall roughly into two groups, based on growing conditions. Butterfly Weed represents one group — the milkweeds that require excellent drainage and lots of sun. Swamp Milkweed represents the moisture-loving milkweeds. Some of these can tolerate a bit more shade, but not much; all of them need a constant supply of moisture.
I have a wonderful sunny flower bed built around a stand of diabase boulders beside my driveway. The soil is sandy and full of rocks, bits of boulder slowly breaking down. Drainage is excellent, and I’ve had good success there with plants that need these conditions. This is where I planted my new native milkweeds that need good drainage and hot sun:
- Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis)
- Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata)
- Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)
- Poke Milkweed (A. exaltata)
- Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa)
All of these milkweeds produce similar flower clusters, and they’re all pretty, mostly in an understated way. Some of them — Poke and Common Milkweeds — grow quite tall, and likely will look a bit unkempt as they mature, which is why I put them toward the back of my bed, where they won’t be particularly conspicuous. Poke Milkweed may need a bit more moisture, so I sited it on a downslope, where it should receive more water.
Even the less showy flowers will attract numerous pollinators, and I’m hoping Monarch caterpillars will appear to devour them next summer/fall. My newly planted good-drainage-loving milkweeds are not mulched. I put small rocks around their bases to help me remember where they are after these perennials die back later this fall. I planted two Butterfly Weeds toward the front of my boulder bed. They are smaller plants at maturity, and their showy, bright orange flowers will look lovely against the boulders.
You may notice a flowering plant amidst all the greenery in one of the pots in the above photo. That was my one impulse buy at the plant sale. I had gone there fully intending to buy only milkweeds, but this lovely native orchid caught my eye. I have always loved the Nodding Ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) that bloom in the NC Botanical Garden’s carnivorous plant display this time of year. So when I spotted this healthy specimen — actually two blooming plants in one pot — I had to have it.
I’ve had great success growing other wetland plants, including carnivorous pitcher plants, in pots that I then place inside my shallow water feature during the growing season. These plants overwinter in their pots inside my little greenhouse, where they sit in saucers of water that I refill as needed to maintain the constant moisture levels they require.
I decided to plant my newly acquired wetland-loving milkweeds in pots that I will treat like the ones currently still sitting in my water feature. Because I’ll be draining that little pond soon, I decided to simply put the new pots in water-filled saucers for now. Next spring after frosts are gone, they will go into the little pond with the other moisture-loving plant pots.
As with the showy Butterfly Weeds, I acquired two Swamp Milkweed plants. Their bright pink flowers will look great amidst the other water plants next growing season. The moisture-loving milkweeds in my new pots are:
- Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
- Few-flowered Milkweed (Red Milkweed) (A. lanceolata)
- Purple Savanna Milkweed (A. rubra var. laurifolia)
These, plus the Nodding Ladies’-tresses, left a bit of room in the pots, so I popped in a few Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) that I had in pots elsewhere. Cardinal Flowers can tolerate drier soils, but they planted themselves in my wetland pots some time ago, and the bloom stalks on those wetter plants are always the tallest in my yard.
I am hopeful that my milkweed experiment will add visual interest to my landscape, attract copious pollinators, and most of all, be utilized by hungry Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Nurturing Beauty in all her guises will always be the greatest reward for this gardener.
With a little planning and minimal effort, one of the fastest ways to enhance your home landscape is through the addition of shrubs. Most folks in the southeastern Piedmont are in shrub ruts, thanks to the overuse of the same few bushes by landscapers of new subdivisions and commercial buildings. A few of those overused shrubs — like Wax Myrtle — are native plants, and so provide food and shelter for wildlife without the invasive tendencies that many non-natives exhibit. But boxwoods, grape hollies (Mahonias), and evergreen azaleas are not native. And the invasive tendencies of Mahonias in our native wetlands is an increasing concern to ecologists.
Today I encourage you to think beyond standardized Piedmont shrubbery. It’s time to consider adding some of our many gorgeous native shrubs to your home landscape. There’s a native shrub for any growing conditions you may have. Some can attain the size of small trees, such as a mature Bladdernut. But others remain just a few feet tall without the need for pruning, including some deciduous azalea and blueberry species.
The advice I offered in my previous post about tree planting applies equally to shrubs. Understand the site where you want to add your shrubs. Is it at the top of a sunny hill? Shaded by larger trees or buildings? In a low spot where rainwater collects? Clay soil? Sandy loam?
When you know the answers to those questions, if the area in question is not already a mulched bed, take the time to create a bed. Break up the soil, work in compost or other organic material to create a moist, loamy planting site. When you add the shrubs, be sure to gently stretch out any roots that might be winding around the interior of the pot. Be sure the level of the dirt in your bed matches where the dirt in the pot touched the base of the stem.
Water in your new addition, then mulch the bed with an inch or two of organic mulch — leaves, wood chips, bark — any of those will do nicely. As with new trees, your new shrubs will need a bit of pampering for their first year of growth. If your area goes into drought, water your newbies. Don’t worry about fertilizer. Native shrubs in a well-prepared planting site don’t need it and don’t really want it.
If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ve read about a number of native shrub options worthy of any Piedmont landscape. Here are a few for your consideration.
For Colorful Drama: Deciduous Azaleas
The southeastern US is home to spectacular native deciduous azaleas, and I’ve described all the ones I grow in this blog. If you search on deciduous azalea, you’ll find the relevant entries. The one here is probably mostly Rhododendron austrinum, but it was listed as a hybrid in the catalog. Talk about making an impact in the spring landscape! Not only are its numerous flowers impossible to miss, their fragrance is equally impressive, and utterly heavenly. The spring-blooming deciduous azaleas mostly do so before their leaves emerge, thereby increasing their visual impact. The summer bloomers, like Plumleaf Azalea, bloom after leaves appear, but the visual impact still stops visitors in their tracks.
Not all deciduous azaleas are fragrant, colors range from pure white to pale yellow to deep gold to rich pinks, oranges, and deep crimsons. Sizes and site requirements vary too. Truly, there is a native azalea ideally suited for almost any growing condition.
Because they drop their leaves in fall (after a spectacular fall leaf color display), deer mostly ignore these shrubs in the landscape. Every once in a while, one will bite off a flower bud in winter or grab a mouthful of summer leaves as it walks past, but deer don’t seem to want to devour this shrub, as they will with Virginia Sweetspire, for example. The deciduous azalea native to my area is Pinxterbloom Azalea (see top photo). I have a ten-foot-tall-and-wide specimen growing on the slope to my floodplain that has always been completely unprotected. The deer eat nearby plants, but ignore the giant Pinxterbloom Azalea.
In my yard, even small, newly planted deciduous azaleas usually begin blooming within the first three years, most sooner than that. Try them; you will not be disappointed.
For Four-Season Interest: Hydrangeas
If you’ve got dry shade, Oakleaf Hydrangea is for you. Yes, you’ll need to water it for the first year during dry spells until it’s settled in, but that’s about it. Late spring clusters of white flowers eventually dry on the shrub, making lovely additions to dried flower arrangements. Leaves are bright green in summer and turn scarlet in autumn, remaining on the stems well into late fall. Winter bark is a deep rich brown that contrasts beautifully with snow. In neighborhoods plagued by deer, the leaves of these shrubs will be eaten. In my yard, I find that if I spray the leaves with one of the repellant mixtures you can buy at any landscape supply store, the deer don’t touch them. In my yard, if I spray in early spring when the leaves are just emerging and again in autumn, I deter most of the nibbling. These are the times when the deer are hungriest in my area. The spray I apply smells horrible (garlic and pepper, I think), but when it dries, I can’t smell it — but the deer still can.
For Lingering Berries: Deciduous Hollies
That photo was taken in late winter. The bright red berries of our native deciduous hollies are the food of last resort with my local birds. Eventually, usually at the tail end of a cold winter, a flock of Cedar Waxwings will descend on these shrubs that I’ve added to my floodplain and strip them clean. I love these shrubs because the persistent crimson berries really pop in a winter landscape, especially because the branches drop their leaves well before that season. Ilex decidua and I. verticillata have been favorites of horticulturalists for a while. Many spectacular cultivars are available reaching various sizes. They’re native to floodplains, but happily tolerate higher ground in a well-prepared bed.
Note that all hollies are dioecious, meaning male and female flowers develop on separate plants. Females produce the lovely berries, as long as a male of the same species is close by. I usually group two or three females where I want them to be seen, and then tuck in a male plant nearby but more in the background — close enough to provide cross pollination, but far enough away to prevent its lack of berries from detracting from the visual impact of these shrubs in the winter landscape.
The List of Options is Long and Varied
This post is growing lengthy, so I’m going to close with a few more suggestions and links to where I’ve described these shrubs before.
- Spicebush — Lindera benzoin
- Virginia Sweetspire — Itea virginica
- Viburnums — Mapleleaf, Arrowwood, and Haws, to name a few
- Beautyberry — Callicarpa americana
- Bladdernut — Staphylea trifolia
October fast approaches. Now is the optimal time to plant native trees and shrubs. Almost every local nursery has a sale this time of year, and so do most public gardens, including the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC. Members-only night is this Friday. If you live in this area, I hope I’ll see you there!
Cooler weather is trying to creep in. Soon the persistent clouds will dissipate, replaced by crisp, cooler air and sunshine that warms but doesn’t sear weeders as we attempt to prepare our flowerbeds for their winter’s sleep.
Every experienced Piedmont gardener’s fingers get itchy this time of year. We know that this is the optimal season for planting new trees, shrubs, and many perennials to give them the best chance of flourishing in our yards. With that itch in mind, I thought I’d mention five small native trees that I believe deserve a spot in many Piedmont home landscapes.
I’ve offered tips for planting trees before, but here are a few key points.
- Our smaller native trees are small because they evolved to be understory trees. They flourish beneath the taller canopy trees such as Tulip Poplars, Oaks, and Hickories, occurring along forest edges, where they are sheltered from searing afternoon sun by the taller canopy trees, but receive some light by being on the edges of clearings. Thus, when you plant your smaller native tree, locate it where it will be shaded from searing afternoon summer sun.
- Our smaller native trees are forest natives. They will never flourish plunked down in the middle of a suburban lawn all by themselves. If your landscape is too small to plant them beneath canopy trees, consider grouping them with native trees and shrubs that are the same size or smaller. As the group of natives matures, you can add native wildflowers beneath them to create a more diverse and beautiful landscape that will also appeal to native wildlife.
- Don’t dig a hole barely big enough for the root ball of your new addition, add the tree, and go your merry way. Tree roots need room to travel. A small hole carved into compacted clay soil works just like a flower pot. The roots will go round and round, never escaping the confines of their prison. Such a tree never flourishes. Ideally, your new addition should be sited in a prepared bed that you’ve tilled deeply and improved with compost or other organic materials.
- Be sure the root ball isn’t below the surface of the surrounding soil. Tree roots need to breathe. If you bury them too deeply, the tree will never flourish. Mulch your new tree with an inch or two of an organic material such as wood chips or leaves. Pine needles are not a good choice.
- Water your new tree during dry spells throughout the following year, even in winter, if precipitation doesn’t fall. Aim for an inch per week for that first year. Once your native is well-established, it will need less attention.
- Don’t fertilize your new tree. Even organic fertilizers are too much for the traumatized root systems of new arrivals. Well-prepared soil, mulch, and adequate water are all they need.
- Don’t spray herbicides near your tree. If the spray drifts onto even the bark of your new addition, your tree can be damaged.
Flowering dogwood is native to all of the southeastern US, from the coast to the mountains, including the Piedmont region where I live. It is a magnificent four-season beauty. Spring, of course, covers the trees in a white cloud of long-lasting blooms. Summer brings bright green leaves, a spot of shade, and developing clusters of berries. Fall ripens those berries to red and colors the leaves in shades of maroon and crimson. Winter shows off the blocky fissured bark and the lateral arrangement of its branches, which snow accentuates in winter landscapes.
Many beautiful cultivars of this tree have been developed by horticulturalists. All local nurseries will be well-stocked with myriad choices this time of year. For the best selection, consider buying from a speciality nursery rather than a Big Box Store’s abused-plant holding area. Any difference in price will be well worth your investment, I promise.
Yes, I know the blooms are not red. This confuses all non-Southeasterners when they hear natives talking about our spring Eastern Redbud flowers. I do not know how they got this name. I do know the light purple-pink flowers cover most branches in early spring, a few weeks before the Flowering Dogwoods reach peak bloom. During a rare cool spring, we often get lucky enough to see prolonged Eastern Redbud bloom — long enough to overlap with snowy Flowering Dogwood flowers. So lovely!
Eastern Redbud is another four-season beauty. After its pea-like flowers (a member of the legume plant family) fade, bean-like seed pods develop, maturing from green to dark brown as summer morphs into fall. Distinctive heart-shaped leaves make this an easy tree to identify. They turn a soft gold before dropping with the first cold winds of autumn. Twigs grow in a unique zigzag pattern that is especially noticeable when coated in snow. Horticulturalists have been busy with this species too. I’m especially fond of C. canadensis ‘Forest Pansy.’
Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum)
In the Appalachian mountains, Sourwoods are often 50 feet tall. They seem to prosper there, and that is where beekeepers put their hives when they want to create sourwood honey. Here in the Piedmont, Sourwoods are typically smaller, usually not more than 30 feet tall. In our native forests, they often take on contorted shapes as their trunks bend toward holes in the canopy where they can receive sunlight. But they will grow straight, tall, and lovely if you simply site yours where it is sheltered from hot summer sun, but receives good morning sunlight.
Clusters of bell-like pure white flowers adorn the tips of branches in June and July, making this native a great way to extend the blooming period of trees in your landscape. Fall leaf color, which begins earlier for this native than most, is drop-dead gorgeous deep scarlet. Its distinctive deeply furrowed bark, plus its tendency to hold on to the dried seed head clusters until spring, make this native another potential winter interest focal point in your landscape. Taste a green leaf in early summer. They have a wonderful sour tang to them, which I imagine is the source of their common name.
The three trees previously described are all happier growing on upland slopes, but this native occurs naturally in moist forests, often near floodplains. If you’ve got a low area in your yard that tends to remain moist, Red Buckeye is worth considering. By early April, this beauty begins opening its clusters of scarlet flowers, just in time for the arrival of native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The flowers occur on the ends of branches, so even as the decorative compound leaves unfurl, the flowers remain visible. Most years in my yard, blooming lasts about a month. Its distinctive fruits — most of us think of them as nuts, although botanically they are considered to be capsules — hang in clusters as fall approaches. Eventually, they crack open to reveal distinctive buckeye fruits. The “nuts” are considered to be good luck charms by some, but they are poisonous. If you have little ones inclined to pick up and taste what they find, this tree is probably not your best option.
For gardeners who crave a bit of drama in their native landscapes, I recommend Ashe Magnolia. Sited correctly, this native beauty will flourish, and it is guaranteed to draw admiration from all visitors. This plant is native to cool, moist shady slopes of the western Piedmont and eastern mountains. Some botanists consider it to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), because the leaf size and shape and the flowers are quite similar. But Bigleaf Magnolia is a vastly taller tree. Ashe Magnolia remains much smaller. Its growth habit is almost shrub-like, with a tendency for low-branching limbs, often a bit lop-sided.
But what it lacks in graceful branching structure, it more than makes up for with its fragrant, enormous flowers and equally large leaves. Those leaves give an almost tropical appearance to this tree’s corner of the landscape, and they turn a beautiful golden yellow before dropping to carpet the ground. This species also blooms when its young. Mine produced its first flowers only two years after I planted a tiny twig of a bare-rooted specimen that I purchased.
If you want to try this native, you’ll need a shady, moist spot with rich organic soil. Pick a low spot in your yard and improve the soil by creating a tilled bed full of compost. Be sure the spot receives little to no afternoon summer sun, but does receive good morning light. If you can do this, your rewards will be spectacular flowers and leaves unlike any other native in your landscape. I unabashedly adore Ashe Magnolia.
Soon I’ll offer some suggestions for native shrubs you should consider adding to your landscape this fall. Until then, take a walk around your yard with an eye to where you can tuck in some well-adapted natives to enhance your landscape. Then visit the local fall plant sales that abound at the many public gardens and nurseries in our region. I am confident that you’ll never regret going native.
Last week was too hot here, the heat made worse by the fact that most of the summer was unusually mild. Dust clouds rose with the slightest disturbance, lingering long in humid, stagnant air. It was not a week conducive to gardening.
Finally this past Sunday, cooler weather began to creep in, accompanied by clouds that dimmed what had been searing sun. Wonder Spouse immediately charged outdoors to catch up on tasks delayed by the heat, leaving our garage door open as he moved back and forth fetching tools, wheelbarrows, and assorted other necessities. His tasks did not require a second pair of hands, so I grabbed my camera and began acquainting myself with the latest developments on our five-acre jungle.
Fruit — that was the takeaway message from this walk. Most plants are well into fruit/seed production, clearly aware of dwindling daylight and down-trending temperatures. The Solomon’s Plumes I added to a wildflower bed on the north side of my yard all made numerous berries this year, as you can see in the photo above. The empty stems you see likely tell the tale of a hungry bird or other critter sampling these bright red berries. I think they look especially festive mingling with the evergreen Christmas fern — another native to our region.
Giant magenta stalks of Pokeweed — easily 8 feet tall — bend from the weight of purple-black clusters of ripe berries. These are favorites with many of the avian inhabitants of my yard, as evidenced by purple-tinged splats of bird excrement deposited on my walks and decks.
Branches of the large Red Buckeye on our floodplain are touching the ground, bent from the weight of nearly ripe fruits. Soon the husks will split and the shiny nut-like fruits will tumble to the ground. These nuts are poisonous to people, but some wild inhabitant makes them disappear every year.
The greatest surprise during my walkabout was my Hammocksweet Azalea — in full, overpoweringly fragrant bloom at the base of my north-facing garden, close to the creek. I sited it there, because this deciduous azalea — the last to bloom for me every year — is native to wetland environments. The flowers are pure white, without a hint of ivory, and their fragrance is knock-your-socks-off sweet. If it were any closer to my house, I think the fragrance might be overpowering, especially as this shrub continues to grow.
September is the month that many large native yellow composite wildflowers adorn every corner of my yard, and many roadsides. I added Green-Head Coneflower to the mix, because I love the prominent seed heads it forms, as do the seed-eating birds that dwell nearby.
My vegetable garden is mostly done for the year. A few peppers linger, and some broccoli plants are struggling to grow beneath the shelter of their Reemay tent. Many of the beds are packed with fresh green sprouts of crimson clover, my winter cover crop of choice. But one bed is dominated by the lovely mix of nasturtiums above. Unimpressed by heat, drought, deluges, or anything else as far as I can tell, they bloom continuously, spreading wandering shoots in all directions, even mingling a bit with adjacent beds full of crimson clover. Their gentle rose-like scent is nothing short of heavenly.
I encountered a bit of wildlife as I made my way around my yard. I think perhaps they’d been hunkering down during the heat wave too. Like me, they were out and about in force during my morning walk. Bird song filled the air. Many toads greeted me in all parts of the yard. I’m always happy to see these insect-eaters. A Green Anole rushed out of a potted plant when I began watering it. It was bright green to blend with the vegetation, and if it hadn’t objected to being watered, I likely would have never noticed it. Five-lined skinks skittered across open ground and up and down trees. A Black Racer darted beneath an aster blooming by my front deck when I got too close; it had been trying to warm itself in the cloud-dimmed sun.
But the highlight of the day came after I had put up my camera and gone back outside to gather some tools in the garage. A frantic bird fluttered at the back windows, too confused to realize that its way out was the other way, through the open garage door. It was an Eastern Phoebe, a small flycatcher common to my yard, thanks to the woodland creek — its preferred habitat — that borders our land.
I have spent many happy hours watching this beauty hunt from my back deck. Its keen eyes watch for flying insects. When it spots one, it leaps into the air, grabbing the bug on the wing, then returning to its perch to watch for more tidbits. Its aerial acrobatics are impressive, and its squeaky call, sounding more like a child’s squeeze doll than a bird, let’s me know it’s on bug patrol.
So when I discovered this distraught Eastern Phoebe desperately trying to escape our garage, I leapt into action. First, I opened all the other doors. Often this is enough to help a trapped bird find its way out. But this little one was unwilling to venture from the high window at the back of the garage. I next tried using a light-weight rake to reach up toward the bird, in the hopes that it would hop on and let me carry it out. This works surprisingly well with the occasional discombobulated hummingbird.
But not so for this Eastern Phoebe. Instead, it fluttered down the back wall, settling on a piece of plywood leaning against the wall, and mostly hidden by another, taller piece of plywood. I did the only thing I could think of. I quietly asked the little bird if it would allow me to pick it up with my hand and carry it to safety. It didn’t move, probably exhausted from its fruitless escape efforts. I chose to interpret its stillness as permission, gently reaching behind the plywood.
The poor, exhausted creature didn’t even struggle in my gentle grasp. I quietly thanked it for its cooperation as I carried it toward the front of the garage. I could feel its heartbeat thrumming through my fingers, otherwise feeling no movement. But as soon as we were clear of the garage, the soft brown bug hunter in my hand began to push against my grasp. I opened my palm and it immediately flew high into a nearby tree, apparently none the worse for its misadventure.
I closed all the garage doors to prevent further accidents, still feeling the heartbeat of that beautiful wild creature in my hand. Not for the first time, it occurred to me how blessed I am to live among the wild ones on our five acres of green chaos. So many people live their entire lives without ever feeling what it’s like to hold a bird in the hand.
When we southeastern US homeowners release ourselves from the notion of a rigidly controlled landscape, magic happens. Instead of spending time shearing defenseless evergreen azaleas and boxwoods into cubes and spheres, or pouring chemicals onto a non-native lawn that you must then mow and fuss over, you can devote your energy to enriching your home landscape with native plants adapted to our region.
Not only will your blood pressure drop as diverse native shrubs, trees, wildflowers, ferns, and vines adorn areas once reserved for sterile sod carpets, our native wildlife — birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles — will gratefully seek shelter and food in the havens you create. Suddenly, your home landscape not only contains beautiful and relaxing plants, it is also animated by native wildlife — a win-win for all.
After you’ve adjusted your thinking about your home landscape to embrace native species, myriad options unfold before you. The purists can plant unhybridized specimens of a plant. These species will be identical to the native vegetation that naturally occurs (where it hasn’t been obliterated) in our region.
For a little more wow factor in your home landscape, many, many wonderful varieties of our native species — called cultivars — have been developed by horticulturalists and are sold at most nurseries. For example, my spectacular specimens of Magnolia — ‘Elizabeth‘ and ‘Butterflies‘ — are both cultivars of our native Magnolia acuminata.
As all gardeners know, creating a landscape is a long-term endeavor. Unlike redecorating the interior of your house, when you implement a landscape design of any kind, you must factor time into the equation. Plants are alive; they start small and grow larger. Weather, disease, and animal predation affect how they grow and whether they flourish. But in my 45+ years of gardening experience in this region, I have learned that if I plant a landscape dominated by a diverse array of well-sited natives, year-round, breath-taking beauty is my reward.
Autumn is almost upon us, which means now is the time to review your landscape plans, so that you will be ready for the fall plant sales that abound in our region this time of year. Perennials, shrubs, and trees are all best planted during the fall and early winter in our region, because the cooler temperatures encourage root growth, thereby better preparing your new additions for summer heat waves next year.
In central North Carolina where I live, the plant sale I get excited about is the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. The sale is an annual tradition at this Chapel Hill, NC public garden, and the array of healthy native plants available increases every year.
This year, among their many offerings, are two species of Pipevines — Wooly Dutchman’s-pipe (Aristolochia tomentosa) and Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla). These shade-loving vines with heart-shaped leaves add vertical interest to a naturalistic landscape, and they produce interesting little flowers that really do resemble tiny pipes. My fanciful brain imagines elves smoking them beneath the abundant fairy rings of toadstools populating my yard.
But I plant this vine mostly because it is the only larval food source for Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies. This is one of our more spectacular large native butterflies, but we don’t see it much in the Piedmont region, because its larval food sources (what the caterpillars eat) are not widely available.
Yes, this means that if you succeed in persuading Pipevine Swallowtails to lay eggs on your Pipevines, the caterpillars will eat holes in the leaves. But these vines are vigorous and perennial. New vines will sprout from the roots the next spring. For my money, a few ragged Pipevine leaves are a small price to pay for seeing Pipevine Swallowtails visiting the nectar-rich flowers I grow nearby.
Creating a rich, diverse native landscape is like choreographing a ballet. Shapes, colors, and forms interweave in a complex dance that differs daily, promising always to entertain and engage observers while feeding and sheltering the dancers.
So, my fellow green-thumbed choreographers, now is the time to patronize your favorite plant sales, preferably first at your local public gardens that use sales proceeds to keep their garden gates open to the public. And if you live within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC, pencil in a visit to the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale on September 26 (members-only night) or September 27. Options will be numerous; truly there will be plants to suit any growing condition your home landscape may possess. I’ll hope to see some of you there!