Archive for May, 2011
When you look at the flowers closely, you can see why one of this rare southeastern native tree’s common names is Poinsettia Tree. The showy sepals, which can range in color from white to pink to deep rose, do remind one of the showy bracts of Christmas poinsettias. But this tree is not related to poinsettias; it’s actually a cousin of another of my favorite summer-blooming shrubs — Buttonbush, which I’ll feature when it blooms.
Pinckneya pubens (formerly P. bracteata) is native to swamp and creek edges of southern Georgia and northern Florida, with a few occurrences noted in the southern tip of South Carolina. Obviously, it’s not quite a southeastern Piedmont native. However, I’d seen this species growing in a couple of local botanical gardens, and I was intrigued by the showy, long-lasting sepals that give this tree a blooming presence when few other trees (except Southern Magnolias) are flowering. When I researched its native habitat, I realized my yard’s creek edge on the floodplain that flows into a wetland was probably as close to ideal growing conditions as it was likely to find.
I was right. My tree is about fifteen years old now, and it’s about 15 feet tall. It’s been blooming reliably for a number of years. As you can see in the close-up above, my tree’s sepals are pink-tinged white. You can actually buy named cultivars of this species that are guaranteed to give you the color you want. I went with a seed-grown specimen, and its color suits me fine. In fact, the lighter tint of the sepals probably helps them stand out in the shade provided by tall sycamores and maples nearby. My tree grows right on the edge of the creek; when the creek floods, this tree is surrounded by fast-moving water, which, if anything, just makes it grow taller.
I’ve read that cold temperatures (around zero degrees Fahrenheit) will kill the tree to the ground, but it usually will resprout from the roots. So far, mine has flourished, despite some pretty cold temperatures, including prolonged ice storms.
The seeds of this tree are contained in big roundish brown capsules that provide visual interest to the winter landscape. Here’s a shot that shows flowers, leaves, and the previous year’s seed capsules:
Other common names for this species are Fevertree and Georgia Bark. These names refer to the fact that the inner bark was used long ago to treat malaria and other fevers.
I’ve read that Pinckneya won’t thrive in heavy wet clay. It wants sandier wet soils, which is what my creek edge provides. If you’ve got a similar wet spot in your yard that’s protected by high shade, you might want to give this southeast native a try. It’s a great conversation starter when you’re walking folks around the yard. After all, you generally don’t see what looks like a 15-foot tall poinsettia blooming in June in the southeastern Piedmont.
I warned you they were coming here. I showed you proof of the invasion of the red-eyed monsters (aka, periodical cicadas) here. And I showed them to you at the height of their emergence in my yard here. Today, a month after their initial emergence in my yard, I am happy to report that the prolonged mating frenzy of the periodical cicadas is winding down.
The most obvious signs of their decline are the body parts scattered across the yard — a single wing here, a severed head there. Every morning for the last three days, I’ve been sweeping dead cicadas from my back deck, which is shaded by a mighty Northern Red Oak. Yesterday’s body count was ten; this morning’s was seven. Accompanying the cicada corpses are proof that the females’ egg-laying is done — small severed oak branches litter the deck and ground. I’ve read that female periodical cicadas are especially fond of young oak twigs, and my backyard evidence confirms this.
I’m not worried about damage to this oak. It’s about 100 years old and 85 feet tall with a trunk diameter too big for two adults to embrace and touch hands. It can accommodate a little pruning by the female cicadas.
However, I am steamed about what they did to one of my prize young deciduous magnolias. Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ is not a native species, but the description of its stunning early pink flowers was enough to persuade me to buy one about eight or nine years ago. For economic reasons, I buy very small, bare-rooted plants, and my Diva did not respond enthusiastically to transplanting, nor did it like being enclosed by a wire cage — a necessity to prevent deer predation.
However, Diva began to come into her own after her area was enclosed by deer fencing and we could remove the cage. She didn’t bloom this year, but I had high hopes for next spring — until the cicadas destroyed those hopes. For reasons known only to a fertile female in egg-laying frenzy, one of the periodical cicadas chose to deposit her eggs three feet down from the top of Diva’s leader branch.
A leader, for those who may not know, is the central branch of a tree — the one that shoots up straight and tall and from which lateral branches sprout. A strong central leader branch helps create a tall, straight, healthy tree. Diva had a nice leader branch before the cicadas killed it. A few days ago, I noticed it dangling from the top (about 9 feet up) by a shred of bark. Wonder Spouse cut it off cleanly for me (he’s taller than me), and I photographed the carnage before removing it. Three feet of the top of Diva’s leader branch, dead:
The cicadas also killed several lateral branches of my gorgeous Ashe Magnolia, but — knock wood — it seems to be mostly intact. I’m hoping that the diminishing high-pitched thrum of the periodical cicadas and the increasing number of ant-covered cicada bodies strewn across the yard mean that Diva’s fate will not be shared by other beloved woody specimens. Another couple of weeks should tell the tale.
They won’t be back until 2024, which suits me fine. By then, my woody specimens should all be large enough to withstand damage from the female periodical cicada’s ovipositor. By then, Wonder Spouse and I will be well into our senior years; perhaps the perspective of increasing age will mellow our annoyance with the mating enthusiasm of these red-eyed monsters.
Spirea bumalda ‘Magic Carpet’ is not native, but this petite ornamental shrub also isn’t invasive. Its four-season pizzazz has earned it a permanent home in my landscape. The local nursery I purchased it from describes its mature size as 3 feet x 3 feet, and they were half right in my garden.
I admit that many plants tend to exceed the maximum sizes described in catalogs and the literature, and no, I don’t fertilize them obsessively. In fact, only vegetables receive fertilizer in my yard. I’m blessed with fabulously fertile soil, and I pay careful attention to where I locate plants. My reward is their enthusiastic growth, which I’ve come to expect and plan for.
In my garden, Magic Carpet never gets taller than three feet, but I think it has “carpet” in its name because of its tendency to branch low to the ground, and those low-growing branches root. Mature specimens in my yard consist of the mother shrub in the center, with little shrublets reaching out in all directions from that center. The low-growing branches insinuate themselves into any empty spaces between plants, creating a lush feel to any planting group they’re part of.
When they spread a bit too enthusiastically, it’s easy to pull up the shallow-rooted shrublets. Of course, I have a hard time throwing away perfectly good plants, so this shrub now adds its chartruese-leaved light to many spots in my yard. I’ve also given away plenty of rooted shrublets to friends. It’s just too pretty to compost.
How pretty? In winter, the dark, thin branches twist into aesthetic tangles — fabulous when covered by snow. Spring brings a burst of new leaves sporting a red tinge that transform to the chartreuse you see in the photo. Those leaves are followed by gazillions of pink flower clusters — pink powder puffs that attract many pollinators. Butterflies will stop by, but the flowers are most beloved by true bumblebees (not the giant carpenter bees). They bumble all over the pink clusters from dawn to dusk, and they’re so fixated on their task that they barely complain if I bump into a shrub on the way to refilling the bird bath.
Here’s a close-up of the flowers. Note the color of the new leaves in the top left corner of the photo.
Throughout the summer, smaller flushes of blooms occur as the shrub continues to produce new growth. Then, just when you think this shrub can’t be more gorgeous, autumn brings a color transformation to the leaves. Suddenly, they go deep crimson, and the leaves linger on the branches until the weather turns bitterly cold — usually December in my garden.
I don’t think you can ask for more four-season beauty than this little ornamental shrub offers. It can tolerate full sun to partial shade, and the chartreuse leaves really do brighten up dark spots in the landscape. If you’ve got a spot in your Piedmont garden that needs a touch of pizzazz, consider Magic Carpet. You won’t be disappointed.
Living on our five acres of relatively healthy southeastern Piedmont land brings occasional floral and faunal surprises. After the massive flooding of Hurricane Fran a decade ago, I spied a River Otter sunbathing on a log in my creek. That was a one-time surprise.
A more reliable surprise is the blooming of the Fire Pinks (Silene virginica) every year in my back yard. I didn’t plant them; they were here when we got here, growing on a slightly eroding, west-facing hillside — the opposite side of the slope down to the creek where the Blood Roots reign every spring.
These crimson show-stoppers are impossible to miss when they’re in bloom, and pretty much invisible the rest of the time. Basal rosettes of leaves keep a low profile until it’s time to send up bloom stalks. These wildflowers are described in my books as short-lived perennials, so I’m assuming that the 20+ years of Fire Pink blooms that we’ve had are due to the flowers self-sowing on their own. I certainly haven’t tried to interfere with them in any way.
My books tell me they tend to be weak-stemmed, but I think that’s only if you try to pamper them by putting them in good garden soil. They naturally occur on rocky slopes in dappled shade, which is exactly where mine have thrived all these years.
Fire Pinks are considered to be in the Catchfly genus, which refers to the sticky hairs on their flowers. These are thought to be adaptations for slowing down non-pollinating insects. I’m guessing their preferred pollinators hover, rather than land on the booby-trapped petals.
If you look at one up close, you can see why these bright red flowers are called Fire Pinks. The Pink refers to the serrated edges on the petals, as if someone had taken pinking shears to their edges. See what I mean here:
If you click on the above photo to see a bigger image, you can really see the serrated edges of the petals.
I think they are lovely little wildflowers, and they need no help from me to flourish. I’ve seen them growing on steep hills along back roads that aren’t mowed often. And for my benign neglect, I am rewarded with crimson Fire Pinks just as summer begins to sizzle — a floral surprise I enjoy every year.
The Virginia Sweetspires (Itea virginica) that I planted here and there on our floodplain are in glorious full bloom right now. This lovely native shrub occurs in swamps, wet woodlands, and along wooded streams throughout the southeastern United States. It doesn’t like high mountains, but you can find it growing in woods from the Coastal Plain to the low mountains, and most certainly in the Piedmont.
When we moved to our five acres over two decades ago, I immediately realized that our floodplain would be excellent habitat for this native beauty. As has often happened here, the spring after I planted my purchased shrubs, I discovered a specimen growing right along the creek bank. The species had been here already; I just didn’t notice it until it bloomed.
But no matter. I’ve come to realize that you can’t have too much Virginia Sweetspire growing in the understory of moist woodlands. The cultivar I grow — Henry’s Garnet — is known for its exceptionally long flower clusters — up to six inches long — and its exquisite deep purple-red fall color that persists in my yard often until January.
The long white flower clusters (racemes) are mildly fragrant, and they attract every pollinator in the neighborhood from native bees, beetles, and flies to gorgeous butterflies. When the shrub is in full bloom, the white glow of all those flowers lights up the deepening shadows of the summer canopy of ashes, maples, and oaks. Here’s a close-up of the flowers:
This native — also sometimes called Virginia Willow (although it’s not in the willow family) — tends to sucker, which means it sends up shoots from the roots to create almost a thicket of Sweetspire. However, that’s a good thing, because this shrub is considered delicious by deer everywhere. I protected my newly planted shrubs by surrounding them with wire cages too tall for deer necks to reach over. My shrubs are now about eight feet tall inside the cages.
I recently took one cage off a shrub to see what would happen. The deer heavily browsed every bit of the shrub they could reach, but its height prevented them from eating all of it. And now gazillions of root sprouts are appearing at the base of the shrub. I’m hoping that eventually the thicket of Virginia Sweetspire will be too wide for the deer to fully penetrate. Time will tell.
As for the specimen that was naturally growing along the creek, it seems to have disappeared. I think a combination of increased deer predation due to the destruction of nearby forests plus some spectacular floods were more than the poor little plant could survive.
But the Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ plants are so much showier in bloom and in fall foliage than the native species that I don’t feel too bad about losing the pioneer plant that was here first.
Once it is established, this shrub is quite drought-tolerant. And a number of new cultivars besides Henry’s Garnet are now commercially available. If you’ve got a moist, low spot that gets a half day’s worth of sun, you can’t go wrong with this native shrub. Your summer shadows will be lightened by its snowy blooms, and your autumn understory will glow with garnet leaves until winter weather strips the forest of all memories of summer green.
Any serious, long-time gardener pays close attention to weather — not just the forecast for the current day. We watch the long-range forecasts, noting temperature and precipitation trends, so that we can coordinate our activities with optimal weather conditions.
In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I garden, the last few weeks have been astonishingly temperate. We’ve actually had a bona fide spring this year — the first one in decades. Wonder Spouse and I had yet another wonderful spring salad from the garden last night: fresh lettuces, mesclun, spinach, Sugar Ann snap peas, and even some delicate chive leaves from my recently transplanted bumper crop of seedlings.
The carrots, beets, and onions are progressing nicely, but are not ready to eat yet. That’s OK. I planted them in the part of the vegetable garden that gets afternoon shade. As long as the rains keep coming, the root crops will achieve tasty maturity.
But after gardening 40+ years in this climate, I know this prolonged spring cannot last much longer. In fact, the weather seers are calling for mid to upper 80s and summertime humidity levels by this weekend. And that’s why I’ve been wearing my old joints to nubs trying to get the summer garden planted and mulched while the cool weather lasts, and before this next round of rain drives me indoors. Besides beating the weather, I had good reason to hurry.
This was the state of my tomato plants in the greenhouse a week ago:
Two weekends ago, Wonder Spouse (with help from his lovely assistant, moi) constructed the tallest tomato trellises he has ever built for me. He used 7-foot tall plastic deer fencing material attached to tall metal poles. Maybe, just maybe this year my tomatoes won’t grow taller than my trellis. As it is, I think I’m going to need some kind of ladder to tie the plants as they near the top — and to harvest fruits too.
Here’s what one of the trellises looked like just after I transplanted the tomatoes:
I dig holes about 8 inches deep and wide for each plant, add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes, then bury the plants, covering at least the seed-leaf node, and often the next node up as well. Roots will sprout from these newly buried nodes, increasing the anchoring and nutrient-intake systems of the plants. See the depressions around each plant? Those are little catchment basins that I build to hold water, directing it down to the roots. Those white markers are ID labels, so I can distinguish between the seven varieties I planted.
This year, the soil was perfectly moist — not wet, but not dry either. In dry years, I add water to the holes after I add fertilizer but before I plant, just to pre-moisten the root zone. Then I bury the plant and add more water.
The final step of this initial phase is mulch. Mulch is essential to the success of a southeast Piedmont vegetable garden. I know old-school farmer/gardeners believe in keeping the soil bare; they use hoes (constantly, all summer long) to hack down the weeds that sprout. Not only is this time-consuming, exhausting work, it’s also much harder on the plants. Root zones become overheated by summer sun, soil dries out faster, and when thunderstorms pound the bare dirt, mud splashes on the plants, creating opportunities for soil pathogens to bounce onto leaves and cause trouble.
Mulching a vegetable garden adds nutrients as the material slowly breaks down. It provides habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms, toads, and garden spiders. It keeps roots cool, suppresses weeds, and protects soil from eroding during summer downpours.
We use wood chips that have decomposed for two or more years to mulch our veggie beds. I never have enough leaves to use those, although that is my preference. Commercial mulches tend to be treated in ways that make me nervous; I don’t know what has been added or subtracted. I tried hay bales once and only once — summer rains made them sprout into a giant weed patch.
A mulched garden also looks better. Check out my tomatoes with their newly added layer of mulch:
Those catchment basin depressions I made are still there, but now they’re filled with mulch. The mulch swells with water, keeping the root zone beautifully cool and moist. I alternate plants on either side of the trellis and tie the branches to the trellis as the plants grow. I find it much easier to keep track of the fruits this way. Tomato cages inevitably become dark green caverns hiding lost fruits.
My method also has the advantage of exposing the work of caterpillars like Tomato Hornworms. Usually the birds spot them before I do, eliminating any need on my part to remove them. Trellises make great perching spots for birds. My bluebirds routinely sit on posts to look for tasty insects.
The tomatoes were just the beginning. I’ve done a lot more in the last two weeks. I’ll show you in another installment, since this one’s running long — much like the increasing daylight as we rush toward another summer solstice.
I admit it’s not my best photograph, but I think it manages to convey the effect achieved by a mature specimen of this perennial Wild Indigo. It’s a naturally occurring hybrid between Baptisia alba and B. australis, and was discovered by Rob Gardner, a former curator at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG).
In 1996, the NCBG and Niche Gardens introduced this lovely perennial to the gardening public. The specimen in the photo above has been growing in my front flower bed for about ten years now. Every year, it produces more bloom spikes. The Niche Garden folks say that when this perennial is truly happy, it can produce as many as 50 blooming stalks.
I suspect mine doesn’t bloom quite that much because it’s receiving too much shade from a nearby ever-expanding Southern Magnolia, and because my naturally fertile soil is probably not as lean as this prairie-habitat-loving native prefers.
My Baptisias bloom spectacularly for about three weeks, blending seamlessly with the purple-leaved Loropetalum, and the bright pink-flowering Weigela behind it.
The Rob Gardner/Niche Gardens team also introduced another Baptisia hybrid — Carolina Moonlight — that produces soft yellow flowers. It’s on my must-get list — just as soon as I figure out the perfect spot for it.
Wild Indigos require careful placement by Piedmont gardeners. Heavy clay soils should be amended to offer excellent drainage. These plants don’t appreciate being moved, so you need to be certain you’ve sited them correctly on the first try. But if you give them what they need — excellent drainage, lean soil, and full sun — you will be rewarded with a near-month of springtime gorgeousness.
I took this photo yesterday morning. It’s a nice little scene just off my entry walk, and — if I do say so myself — it’s gosh-darn pretty. Of course, if you looked to the right or left of this picturesque scene, you’d see the weeds plotting their final conquest of that side of the entry.
But I’ve no time to worry about weeds in the ornamental beds right now. I’m up to my aching muscles in the annual big push to get the summer vegetable garden planted.
Yes, I’m behind. What else is new?
- For the first time in several years, we have a successful and productive spring vegetable garden, so we spent a lot of time weeding and mulching those beds as the veggies attained maturity. I’ve also been feeding them with a dilute fish emulsion/seaweed mixture to keep them happy, and they are, which is why I’m picking spring vegetables every other day. Our spring salads melt in our mouths. Lightly steamed Sugar Ann Snap Peas are unspeakably delicious. The results are worth our efforts, no doubt about it.
- However, this has put preparations for the summer beds behind. We’ve now managed to get the two beds designated for tomatoes weeded, compost added, trellis built and erected, and — since yesterday — planted. That’s 16 too-tall tomato plants plus 8 basil plants. Today’s chore list starts with mulching the tomato beds before tonight’s predicted rains.
- I am not as tough as I used to be. While I realize that aging beats the alternative — as Wonder Spouse is fond of reminding me — whiny joints and screaming muscles are decreasing my productivity. I can’t work full 8-hour days back-to-back anymore — not if I want to walk upright the next day.
- Life — yes, I actually do more than obsessively garden, and sometimes I must sacrifice a perfect gardening weather day for those other obligations. Very frustrating, but obligations must be met, yes?
I could go on, but you get the idea. Weather is predicted to become rainy and unsettled toward the end of the week, so that is making me push even harder. I have been taking a few pictures, and when the rains finally drive me indoors, I’ll try to catch up a bit on the blog.
For now, enjoy the lovely quiet scene from my front garden, ignore the fact that it’s a highly contrived shot designed to only show you the good bits, and think good thoughts about my cranky body’s ability to keep up with the gardening demands I’m placing on it.
I planted my native Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus) on my north-facing slope near the bottom of the hill about fifteen years ago. It probably gets more shade from the canopy trees towering over it (River Birches, Sweet Gums, Tulip Poplars) than it would like for optimal blooming, but it still puts on a spring show every year.
I used to worry about it every spring. It is one of our last native trees to leaf out. But I’ve learned to trust that it knows what it’s doing, and each succeeding year, my patience is rewarded with more flowers.
Fringe Trees are so named for the conspicuous clusters of white flowers that dangle like fringe — or tinsel on a Christmas tree. I don’t think its other common names — Old-Man’s-Beard and Grancy Gray Beard — adequately convey the loveliness of this tree (a member of the Olive Family) in full bloom. I’m not alone in my opinion. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition), Michael Dirr states that the British consider this species to be “one of the finest American plants introduced into their gardens” (page 229).
Trees usually produce either mostly female or mostly male flowers; the male flowers are showier because of their longer petals. Fertilized female flowers produce blue berry-like fruits (botanically, drupes) that are very popular with birds — and ornamental until they are devoured.
When it’s not in bloom or fruit, this nearly pest-free native blends inconspicuously into the understory, providing cover and habitat for wildlife. It is ideal in landscapes when planted along a forest (or natural area) edge, and requires conditions similar to Dogwoods and Redbuds. Planting several together provides optimal spring impact and is more likely to ensure fruit production.
I think the flowers on my tree are mostly female, but because I don’t have any other trees nearby, it doesn’t produce fruit. I need to plant more Fringe Trees nearby — preferably male trees — so that I can provide more fruit for the local birds. My tree is about fifteen feet tall now, and will likely grow another ten or so feet before it attains its mature size.
A few years back — maybe five or six — I planted a Chines Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus). A local nursery that specializes in well-adapted Asian species was selling them, and I couldn’t resist performing my own comparative analysis by planting my native Fringe Tree’s Asian cousin nearby.
My Chinese Fringe Tree leafs out before the native, but achieves peak bloom later. It seems to be growing into a more shrubby form than the native tree, and its leaves are quite thick and lustrous — altogether a very different-looking Chionanthus.
The flowers of my Asian specimen are not as showy as those of the native. Like our native Fringe Tree, this species is mostly dioecious (male or female). I think mine may be a female, but I’m not positive. It will probably grow to be a smaller tree/shrub than my native specimen, and now that it’s getting bigger, the exfoliating (peeling) bark its noted for is becoming increasingly evident.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, I prefer our native Fringe Tree. Most of the year, it inconspicuously contributes to the forest understory, providing cover, habitat, and food. But every spring, it shines as its snowy fringe flowers dance in the sweet-scented breezes of the season.
That’s right — I used the R word, as in rain, liquid precipitation, glorious fat drops of falling water. It has been many, many months — since last year some time — that we received over an inch of rain from one precipitation event on our five acres. Many areas quite near by got plenty of rain, but not my house, not my increasingly thirsty yard.
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, my yard got its turn. About 12:45 a.m., a storm slammed into us, bringing ferocious, house-shaking winds, room-illuminating lightning, and a grand total of 1.10 inches of rain. Hallelujah!
Of course, I was a nervous wreck when the pounding winds and lightning rained branches down onto the roof. Fortunately, they were small branches; they only sound like logs when they’re hitting the roof in the dark. And, of course, Wonder Spouse slept through the entire storm.
The number on the rain gauge made my sleep deprivation worthwhile. This was not a drought-breaking event. We would need about one of these events every week for several months to bring us back to optimum wetness. But it’s a tiny soggy step in the right direction — finally.
Now I must redouble my gardening pace. The summer garden must be planted before the weekend is over, so that the plants can settle into pre-moistened vegetable beds. The spring garden must be harvested and fed to encourage continued production. The rain will have made the sugar snap peas swell. The greens will all be larger. I see more tasty salads in our imminent future.
Of course, weed growth will outpace the growth of desired plants, making my chore list that much longer. And the “lawn” that we mowed on Sunday will now shoot skyward sooner than we’d like. But I’ll take more weeds and a taller lawn as long as the blessed rain keeps coming.
All of last night’s liquid goodness will make my lovely Chartreuse Spiderwort, ‘Sweet Kate’ even lovelier than she was when I took the above photograph a few days ago. She’s mingling with some of the other perennials that surround our little water feature that I told you about here.
Sweet Kate was developed in England, and she’a hybrid between two native US species, so I consider her one of us. She thrives on neglect, even multiplying enthusiastically but not excessively. Several of the small speciality nurseries in my area sell this plant. Even when she’s not blooming, she makes her presence felt with those knockout leaves.
As spring morphs into summer, Sweet Kate will continue to show off her vibrant flowers sporadically until frost. But I’ve no time to admire her many fine qualities when I have all of these plants looming large in the greenhouse, waiting for relocation to their permanent summer homes:
I think I’d best get busy…