Archive for March, 2011
Most folks hate thorny vines on general principles — unless they’re roses, maybe — then all is forgiven. But our native vines — whether thorny or smooth — deserve more respect than they are usually accorded.
I don’t know which species of Smilax is in this photo. It is growing up a Musclewood tree adjacent to my creek. Call it Catbrier or Greenbrier or Smilax spp., if you don’t feel like ascertaining its full botanical name, but don’t necessarily yank it out the minute you see it.
I pull up Smilax if its growth is going to interfere with something I want to show off — say, one of the native deciduous azaleas I’ve planted. But when I spot it growing among native trees in one of our less supervised natural areas, I usually leave it alone.
Because Smilax is a native vine, it’s not invasive. Compared to the destructive habits of Japanese Honeysuckle or Porcelainberry, it is downright well-mannered. One of the reasons this native vine doesn’t take over forests is because it is eaten by wildlife.
The vines remain green throughout the year; I often find them eaten to the ground by deer in late winter, when food is scarcest for them. And then there are those berries you see in the photo. My references tell me they are important food sources for Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, and at least 40 species of songbirds. Rabbits find the leaves and young shoots tasty, and beavers think the tubers of some species are haute cuisine.
With so much wildlife dependent on Smilax as a food source, I feel obliged to tolerate it in my landscape — most of the time. If a thorny vine snags me more than once as I walk past, I confess I will cut back the offender. Of course, it sprouts from its roots again eventually, so I’ve only temporarily slowed it down anyway.
The next time you encounter a thorny Smilax vine in your yard, consider leaving it where you find it. After all, it really does belong in our Piedmont landscapes. And the birds, beavers, and bunnies will thank you.
My Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is starting to bloom right on schedule. I took this photo yesterday during our brief sunny spell. This native understory tree common to moist forests and stream banks throughout the southeastern US Coastal Plain and lower Piedmont is one of the first red-flowering natives to bloom every spring.
I think of Red Buckeyes as the welcoming committee for returning Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Their annual return to my region always coincides with the first blooms of Red Buckeyes and Eastern Columbines. In fact, I’ve got sugar water cooling on my counter. I’ll be filling and hanging my hummingbird feeder later today when the precipitation tapers off a bit.
I haven’t seen any hummers yet — the red-throated males always show up first to stake out their territories. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, probably tired and hungry from their migration flight from Central America. I’m betting I’ll see one or two precipitation-dampened beauties on the feeder soon after I put it out.
The Red Buckeye on my floodplain was not growing there when we moved in. I planted it about 15 years ago, knowing that this native would be happy in that spot, and that the hummingbirds would appreciate the early nectar supplied by its flowers. The tree usually tops out at between 20-25 feet and tends to be rather wide and low, almost shrubby.
What I didn’t count on was Red Buckeye’s talent for spreading itself around. Botanically speaking, the fruits are capsules, but a casual observer would call them nuts — or buckeyes, as you may have heard them called. All parts of this tree — leaves, flowers, and fruits — are highly poisonous. Ingestion can be fatal, so you may not want this tree in your yard if you have small children or dogs that like to nibble on plants. I suspect the toxicity of the fruits is responsible for this tree’s talent for planting itself far from the mother tree.
I’m finding seedlings all over my yard now, quite a distance from the original tree I planted, as I reported here. I suspect that squirrels know the fruit is poisonous, but they can’t overcome their instinct to bury nuts, so they transport the Red Buckeye fruits to all parts of my yard and bury them. The seeds sprout, and another tree is born. If they’re not in the way, I’m leaving them alone. But more and more now, I’m pulling them out.
I know from talking to the staff at the NC Botanical Garden that they no longer encourage folks to plant this native, because of its talent for spreading itself around. But I’m not planning on eradicating all of my Red Buckeyes. The early red tubular flowers are quite striking — as are the compound, palmately arranged leaves.
Most important for me, a mature tree covered in red flower clusters in early April is like a neon sign to returning hummingbirds: Good Eats Here — Open All Day.
And one can never have too many Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds.
This morning before sunrise, the temperature on my hill bottomed out at 26.1 degrees F. I estimate that it stayed in the 26-degree range for several hours. This is not good news.
I’m pretty sure the spring veggies are fine. I covered them last night thusly:
This morning, I removed the covers after the temperature went above freezing and the sun was well up. Judging from the Sugar Ann Snap Peas, the veggies came through the freeze with no difficulties.
The trees, however, did not fare as well, I fear. Certainly, my magnolias — Butterflies and Elizabeth — are sad-looking indeed. Butterflies had finished blooming and begun putting out some (thankfully, not all) tender new leaves. They are limp brown little things now. Elizabeth was still covered in creamy flowers. They are all now slimy dark brown.
Based on those two trees, I’m worried that the 80-foot tulip poplars and sweet gums, whose leaves were at about the same stage of emergence as Magnolia ‘Butterflies,’ are now equally limp and sad. But they are too far away for me to tell. In a few days, I’ll know. If the ground becomes littered with brown slimy tiny leaves and flower buds, I’ll know.
Seeing the damage done by the cold made today’s sunshine that much crueler. Where were you, sun, when they needed you?
Tomorrow, the clouds are predicted to return and linger for several days. Temperatures will also drop 15 or 20 degrees from today. Not cold enough for another freeze. Just cold enough to make the predicted precipitation (yeah, right — I’ll believe it when my gauge registers it) chill aging bodies to the bone.
Fingers crossed that all is not lost for the canopy giants. You’ll know when I know.
Some years back — I don’t remember how many — my part of the piedmont of North Carolina had an early very warm spring — very much like the one we experienced this year. In response to the 80+ degree F temperatures, all the trees leafed out early. Those that bloom before they leaf out flowered ahead of their normal timetable. All the spring bulbs and wildflowers bloomed simultaneously, instead of offering the usual succession of color spread over several weeks — very much like what has happened this spring.
That spring some years back, all that leafy enthusiasm was blackened overnight by a late freeze. As I’ve mentioned, I live in a cold spot, so when lows are predicted to be 30, I’m likely to see 25. That black spring killed every new leaf and flower on my 80-foot canopy trees. The week after the freeze, the ground was littered by tiny blackened tulip poplar, sweet gum, and oak leaves. The trees returned to winter’s barrenness.
For a while, I was afraid the trees were dead. However, after two more months, the canopy trees managed to push out a second flush of leaf growth — not as lush as the first — but enough to finally offer shade to the forest floor.
It was June before that happened. Normally, the canopy is fully emerged by mid-April. It was a long, hot, painful late spring/early summer until I finally had the forest shade I rely on to cool my home, shelter birds, and feed wildlife.
Fast-forward to this precocious spring. My spring-blooming ornamental magnolias are nearly done — thank goodness. But the native trees that bloom — redbuds, dogwoods, silverbells, serviceberries, buckeyes, and more are all either blooming or about to bloom — ahead of schedule by a week or more. Likewise, my Rhododendron canescens (Piedmont Azalea), a native deciduous azalea, is just opening its buds — and it’s packed with flower buds this year, promising to be a showstopper in the landscape.
The blueberry bushes are blooming or about to start. The spring vegetables are just starting to put on some size and become productive. And now the meteorologists are predicting a freeze for tonight.
I can cover the vegetables and the azalea. I can’t protect my 20-35-foot blooming understory trees. And I certainly can’t do anything but wring my hands over tender tulip poplar leaves or abundant oak catkins just beginning to release their pollen.
I fear another black spring is about to obliterate my spring landscape. If I’m lucky, the oak leaves are still safely inside their buds. We won’t get any acorns if the flowers die, which is bad news for wildlife, but perhaps we’ll still at least have leafy shade.
I’m very worried about the trees whose tender new leaves have already emerged. When the last black spring happened some years back, our water levels were normal, meaning the trees had plenty of soil moisture available to help them summon the energy for another surge of leaf growth.
This spring, however, we are in a severe drought. Water tables are frighteningly low. Roots will have much more difficulty finding all the moisture they will need for a second try at leaf development. Drought-stressed trees are more susceptible to insect and disease damage. The potential for a downward spiral from healthy forest to barren landscape is very real.
This morning, I felt sleet pellets hitting my face as I retrieved my morning paper. This afternoon, I will be covering as many tender plants as I can — and praying for enough lingering warmth in the canopy to prevent another black spring.
It is 38.5 degrees F outside as I type this — and it’s almost noon! In the North Carolina piedmont in late March, that’s unusual — not unheard of, but unusual. What is usual, alas, at least lately, is that our precipitation amounts fell far short of the amounts promised by the meteorologists.
In fact, I’ve just about had it with the meteorologists. They stand confidently in front of their maps, showing off their myriad computer models, assuring viewers of weather events about to occur. And — at least for my yard — they are always wrong. I must live in some kind of weather netherworld, because my temperatures average ten degrees cooler, except on very windy days, and my precipitation amounts are a joke compared to the numbers reported for areas just 30 and 40 miles away. I am trying not to be paranoid, but it’s hard not to suspect a conspiracy — at least not on gloomy, cold days like today.
To cheer myself up, I dug my winter coat out of the closet and visited my greenhouse. I was not disappointed by what I saw. The germination chamber in the back of the top photo is full of six- and 4-packs planted with tomato and basil seedlings. I tucked the freshly planted pots into the chamber on March 23, and today, all but one pack has visible seedlings popping up — not bad for a little over three days.
The basils actually started sprouting after two days. I’m growing four kinds. Two are culinary basils, rich in aromatics — pesto magic. They are called Aroma 2 and Nufar. I’m also growing lemon and cinnamon basils this year. If you’ve never tried these, you should. The lemon basil adds a citrus-basil zing to salads and just about anything else you try it in. Cinnamon basils are gorgeous plants, and I find them wonderful in desserts. They dress up everything from vanilla ice cream with fruit to my favorite pound cake recipes. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them.
As for the tomatoes, two varieties are already sprouted and out of the germination chamber. I sowed them earlier, because they require the most days to produce fruit. They are Purple Russian and Ferline. Here they are with Sweet Alyssum and Fernleaf Dill seedlings.
You may want to click on the above photo and check out the plant in the pot at the top. It’s a Chinese Asarum that I got years ago at a plant auction. That purple-maroon blob beneath the leaves is its very cool-looking flower. The long strappy leaves in the pot are yellow Zephranthes volunteers. This little bulb seems to self-sow very enthusiastically in my greenhouse.
As for the tomatoes just emerging in the germination chamber now, Viva Italia was first and most numerous. But Sweet Treats, and Early and Italian Goliath seedlings are also now well up. Late to the party is Big Beef, which is still showing no evidence of germination. But it’s only been a few days. I’m not worried.
I described all these tomato varieties in an earlier post here if you want to read more about them. If you’re wondering about the crowd of seedlings beside the tomatoes, those are the Sweet Alyssum seedlings that I never managed to transplant into individual pots. I told you about them previously here. You can see that their enthusiasm has not waned.
The first photo shows some of the Sweet Alyssums that I did manage to transplant. They are big enough to put into the garden, just as soon as I am sure we are past freezing temperatures for good. That will likely be another couple of weeks.
In the meantime, I’ll be watering the seedlings every few days with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion and seaweed extract to help them remain vigorous.
The spring veggies in the garden are also doing well. I’ll update you on those another day.
What plant lover can resist the offer of a free plant — especially when the plant is a native shrub not currently growing in that plant lover’s garden? I confess, my willpower is weak when this temptation occurs.
Such a situation arose just last week when I visited the Cure Nursery as part of a field trip with the North Carolina Native Plant Society (NCNPS). The Cure Nursery is a wholesale operation specializing in native plants adapted to wetlands.
Companies that buy plants from Cure Nursery are mostly involved in wetland restoration projects. For example, when a road or bridge is built near a creek or other water source, native vegetation is usually destroyed. Environmental regulations require builders to re-vegetate such sites with appropriate native plants. Thus the need for suppliers like the Cure Nursery.
The Cures not only generously offered the NCNPS a tour of their facility, they also offered each member a free plant. They had more Zenobia pulverulenta shrubs than they needed and offered them to anyone in the group who wanted one. I could not resist.
This shrub is not technically native to the southeast piedmont. It occurs naturally in southeast swamps and bogs in the coastal plain. But natural occurrences of this shrub have been noted as close as one county south of mine. And part of our yard is a wetland, so I do have some relatively moist potential sites, despite the severe drought that plagues my region currently.
After pondering my new shrub’s site requirements, I opted to plant it yesterday just inside my deer fence at the bottom of a northeast-facing hill. The area only floods during major events, but remains quite moist because of water that percolates down from the top of the hill.
Yesterday was cool and cloudy, and the weekend is supposed to be downright cold and –theoretically — wet (still not typing the R word), so I figured it was an optimal moment to transplant my newest acquisition. I generally try to avoid planting new trees and shrubs in spring, because our summers are so hard on new transplants. But when a free, interesting shrub is offered, exceptions must sometimes be made.
The picture above is the plant in its pot sitting in front of my greenhouse. The daffodils in the photo are growing in the bed that surrounds the greenhouse. I don’t have an “after” shot of the planted shrub yet. I can tell you that I encountered gazillions of earthworms when I dug the hole for this shrub, and that the soil was loamy and moist but not wet. After tucking it into the ground, I mulched and watered it well, so I’m hoping it will adjust and be happy in its new home.
While I had the shovel out, I relocated some of the Bloodroots from their naturally occurring location to inside the deer fence on a slope closely resembling their original spots. And I relocated a few just-emerging Mayapples to a nice damp spot inside the deer fence not far from the new shrub. I’ll tell you more about Mayapples another time.
Even on a cloudy day like today, there’s no missing this eye-popping shrub. It is Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum ‘Zhuzhou Fuchsia’. Chinese Fringe-flower, a hardy member of the witchhazel family, blooms intermittently through the year, but early spring is when it really struts its stuff.
There’s a white-flowered, green-leaved form too, but why would you settle for green and white when you can have deep purple-maroon leaves and bright fuchsia flowers? Here’s a close-up of those flowers:
I got my specimen from a local arboretum about ten years ago. It was a benefit of membership, and my rooted cutting was six inches tall. It is now ten feet high and still growing. My references say ten feet is its maximum height, but judging from my experience, count on a bit more.
As you can see from the first photo, I’ve limbed up my shrub into a more tree-like form, but it will maintain branches all the way to ground level if that’s your preference. The leaves are somewhat fuzzy, making them less palatable to deer, which only take occasional spite-bites as they pass.
Heavy snows and ice storms do break some branches of this shrub, but it grows so vigorously that you can’t really see the break points by the end of the following growing season. This non-native shrub is ideal for any southeast piedmont landscape. It doesn’t attract pollinators, but it does provide dense cover for birds. A pair of cardinals nests in mine every year.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for purple-leaved plants, consider finding a spot for this shrub in your yard. It’s guaranteed to wake up any early spring landscape — even on cloudy days.
I realize that I am treading on a Great American Obsession, but I confess I do not understand the lawn fixation that afflicts so many people. When was it decided that one’s home is inadequate if it is not surrounded by a meticulously maintained carpet of non-native grass?
My cynical side wonders if this is another example of clever marketing. Certainly fertilizer and herbicide manufacturers, lawn-mower makers, and lawn-care companies would lose millions of dollars if Americans woke up one day and realized how many alternatives there are to artificially maintained monocrops in their yards.
But I’m not feeling cynical today, not when my “lawn” is full of colorful botanical surprises. That’s just one of them in the photo above. I’ve never planted Grape Hyacinths in my yard, but the previous property owner must have. Over the decades, the hyacinths have migrated from the old beds where they were planted into the green expanse that we mow occasionally and call our lawn.
The hillside leading down to the floodplain is jam-packed with flowers at the moment. Lawn companies would call them weeds. I call them welcome soil-holders, because if they weren’t there, my hill would erode into the creek.
Most of these flowers — speedwell, henbit, chickweed, mustard, buttercup, dandelion, violet, and Johnny Jump Up — were brought to this continent by European settlers. These plants were deemed such essential kitchen garden components that room was made for them on the long voyages to this land.
Usually these plants served more than one purpose. In the spring, their young green leaves provided welcome nutrients to winter-starved bodies. Medicines were derived from some. And most folks have at least heard of dandelion wine. These plants, once deemed so essential to life by our ancestors, are now mostly shunned — at least by those obsessed with the quest for pristine lawns.
But not by me. In my yard, these botanical lawn ornaments will always be welcome signals of spring’s return.
Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ opens fully a week or so after Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ begins. I think of Elizabeth as Butterflies’ older sister. Like Butterflies, Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ is a cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata, but the differences between the two are significant.
Elizabeth was created and patented first. It grows taller — about 50% taller, and the sweetly fragrant flowers of Elizabeth are not as yellow as the flowers of Butterflies. Elizabeth’s flowers are more of a yellow-tinted cream. However, Elizabeth’s paler color does not stop a mature specimen from making quite a visual impact in the landscape.
My tree is 20 years old and about 40 feet tall. Here’s how my tree looked today standing in a clearing surrounded by mature pines:
This clearing among the pines faces my driveway and is quite close to the street. I like to imagine that passing traffic enjoys Elizabeth’s flowers as much as I do every spring.
The tree’s graceful tapered form looks lovely even after its flowers are spent and its bright green leaves have emerged. In winter, its gray-white trunk is as eye-catching as that of a Beech tree. And the sweet scent of its flowers cannot be ignored within a 100-yard radius.
Here’s a view of some of its branches as I looked up at the tree:
This picture gives you a better sense of the true color of the flowers when they first open. They fade quickly to a paler cream tone, especially if the weather is warm, as it has been here lately.
As with Magnolia ‘Butterflies’, some Southeast Piedmont springs are kinder to Elizabeth than others. A sudden freeze can brown the flowers overnight. But the gamble is worth it for springs like the one we’ve had so far this year, when every perfect yellow bud opens to reveal creamy petals, its sweet fragrance inviting early pollinators to linger till sunset.
In Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition), he states that Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ should reach a mature height of between 30-50 feet. My tree is close to that maximum height and still appears to be growing enthusiastically. It may exceed Dirr’s estimate.
Frankly, I hope my Elizabeth continues to grow for many years to come, delighting the eyes and noses of everyone who passes by.
They make quite a statement, don’t they — all those catkin-type flowers dangling from the branches? They certainly caught my eye as I walked along the creek bank. These are the flowers of a lovely native understory tree common in moist piedmont forests: Carpinus caroliniana. It has always been one of my favorite understory trees.
Part of my attraction to the tree is its smooth bark. The trunk twists subtly, resembling muscles, which is how it got one of its many common names: Musclewood. It’s also called Ironwood, because the dense wood is hard to cut — although my local beaver population seems to have no difficulty felling this species that tends to grow adjacent to creeks and rivers.
Here’s the trunk of another Musclewood growing beside my creek:
And here’s a close-up, so you can see the twistiness of the bark that resembles muscles:
The tree flowering in the first photo is dangling out over the creek, its roots clinging tightly to the edge of the bank. I often spot these trees bent in odd positions beside creeks. I think their shapes result from adapting to occasional floods and to seeking light through the mature canopy above them.
Other names for this birch family member include American Hornbeam and Blue Beech. The latter name comes from the fact that Carpinus caroliniana bark is smooth like that of beech trees, but its color is bluish gray, rather than the white of true beeches.
The fruits of this tree are called nutlets, and they are popular with squirrels and birds.
According to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition), the tree should be considered more often in man-made landscapes, especially in moister areas, where many tree species don’t grow well. He even lists two named cultivars.
If you’re looking for an understory-size tree (30-35 feet) that tolerates shade and moisture, provides four seasons of visual interest, and feeds wildlife, give Musclewood serious consideration. I’m betting you’ll come to appreciate its subtle beauty in the landscape as much as I do.