Archive for August, 2011
Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum, formerly Eupatorium coelestinum) showed up on my floodplain about five years ago. I recognized it immediately from seeing it on my trips to the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, and I was delighted to see it volunteer its presence beneath a deciduous holly in damp, sandy silt deposited by occasional floods from the creek that borders our property.
When it first appeared, it was even smaller than the plant pictured above. Creek-deposited volunteer wildflowers come and go on my floodplain, and I wasn’t sure it would last, but I needn’t have worried. A bit of research revealed that this wildflower spreads by rhizomes (fleshy roots), and even has a reputation for being a tad aggressive in fertile garden soils.
Over the past five years, this clump of Blue Mistflower has spread, but I think its location likely prevents it from any takeover plans. It is suggested as a good groundcover for moist areas, and that’s exactly what my colony is doing. From August through October, the base of my 20-foot deciduous holly is completely surrounded by this low-growing, long-blooming lavender blue wildflower.
It looks a bit like the bedding annual, Ageratum, that you see in all the garden centers. But this wildflower is not related to Ageratum, and it’s a perennial, relying on its rhizomes to resprout and spread every spring.
Our native pollinators love the flowers, which is all the reason I need to welcome this beauty’s spreading ways. Add to that the lovely, long-lasting blue blooms, which come when native yellow composite flowers dominate the Piedmont landscape, and now you have a reason to find a spot for this beauty too.
Nothing lights up the landscape on a cold January day like a few male cardinals perched on a snowy branch. Their fiery feathers draw the eye by adding sharp visual contrast to an otherwise black and white world.
The deep scarlet of Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) in an early fall landscape provide a similar effect. In a slightly faded green world, the tall stalks (3 to 5 feet) full of ruby-lipped flowers provide the eye a welcome place to settle.
This beauty, native to our floodplains and swamps, adapts well to more formal garden settings. For most of the year, a low basal rosette of leaves waits patiently. As long as you don’t bury the leaves in mulch or let the soil go completely dry, flower stalks will shoot up in mid-summer. A few flowers open in early August, but in my yard, they set the landscape on fire from late August through most of September.
Hummingbirds, always seduced by tubular red flowers, are the primary pollinators. Although I also have observed swallowtail butterflies delicately inserting their long tongues for the nectar.
New plants form a clump around the original rosette and are easy to pull apart and replant when flowers are replaced by seed capsules. After I relocate the new rosettes, I carry the seed stalks down to my floodplain, shaking them vigorously to release the seeds. If I’m lucky, next year, scarlet spikes will glow among the jewelweeds and goldenrods that also light my autumn wetland.
Two years ago, I decided to add our other native lobelia to my landscape. One of the many benefits of membership in the North Carolina Botanical Garden is the free seed giveaway that members are offered every year. They send you a list of the native seeds they have to offer, and you send in your selections. Of course, the sooner you send in your picks, the more likely you are to get what you asked for. High on my list: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).
Great Blue Lobelia seeds proved to be just as easy to germinate as their Cardinal Flower cousins. I ended up with many, many tiny seedlings. I opted to grow them in pots for a year to get them to a better size for transplanting success. Last fall, I set out the basal rosettes in areas where my Cardinal Flowers were already flourishing.
Great Blue Lobelia flower stalks don’t grow quite as tall as their carmine cousins, topping out at a height of usually no more than three feet. But the deep blue flowers provide a tranquil, cooling rest for the eyes. And hummingbirds seem to enjoy them almost as much as Cardinal Flowers.
Because all parts of both species are quite poisonous, they are supposed to be less tasty to deer. But I’ve noticed that hungry deer will happily eat the flower stalks if given an opportunity. However, inside my deer-fenced area, and in a few other protected spots, my lobelias are flourishing, bringing a welcome burst of color to my late summer landscape.
I may have mentioned in a previous post that our house nestles beneath a sizable Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra). It’s between 90 and 100 feet tall now, I think. Here’s the trunk, which our house surrounds on two sides.
And here’s the top of it, well most of the top of it:
Did you notice the pile of greenery to the left of the trunk in the second photo? That’s part of a massive tree limb that thunderstorm winds ripped off this tree a couple of days ago. We were very fortunate that the winds placed the limb just beside the trunk, rather than on our rooftop or deck. Here’s what the broken end of the limb looks like:
And here’s the stub left behind when the limb was ripped from my beautiful tree:
As you might imagine, Wonder Spouse and I were concerned when what seemed to be a very healthy tree limb almost fell on top of us. So we called our friendly neighborhood arborist, whom we’ve been working with ever since we moved to our five-acre patch over two decades ago. Derek looked carefully at the broken limb and agreed that it had been healthy. However, when he noticed the enormous quantity of very large acorns dangling from every branch, he had an explanation for this thankfully minor disaster.
Derek explained that during heavy nut-producing years for oaks, hickories, and pecans, he often sees trees suffering limb breakage — sometimes significant limb breakage. In fact, he gets calls from folks who ask his crew to come remove the nuts from the trees before too many branches break from the extra weight of all those healthy fruits.
I had no idea. You’d think a nut tree would be adapted to handle the load of a good fruit crop. But growing conditions vary — as do weather patterns — and some years produce conditions conducive to significant breakage of very large, healthy tree limbs.
Given that Hurricane Irene is barreling straight for my state as I type this, I asked Derek if I needed to worry about the Northern Red Oak that looms over my house. He studied it carefully — he’s been pruning and inspecting the tree off and on for twenty years — and he pronounced it sound. Then he conceded that there’s no guarantee that hurricane winds won’t fell even the healthiest tree under the right circumstances. Way to help me relax, Derek.
I’m thinking our best hope to prevent further damage is the bumper crop of squirrels we seem to have this year. Here’s hoping they get very busy very fast, and relocate those hefty acorns from the tree to winter storage areas ASAP.
And let’s also hope that Hurricane Irene will continue her eastward-trending predicted path, sparing the North Carolina Piedmont where I live from her brutal winds.
Imagine an Easter lily on steroids blooming blissfully through late summer heat and you begin to have an inkling of the wow factor that Formosa lilies (Lilium formosanum) bring to the landscape. These Asian beauties produce 10-inch long, white, fragrant trumpets on stems that can top over 7 feet. Mine routinely tower over neighboring shrubs and flowers.
My plants usually produce a cluster of 8 to 10 flowers per stem. The flowers are so large that visiting hummingbirds completely disappear into the trumpets.
The hummingbirds aren’t the only garden residents that enjoy these snowy giants. Wonder Spouse caught this blue beauty resting atop a flower just the other day:
On a late summer morning when the air is heavy with humidity and thrumming with cicada song, the fragrance of these giants lingers over the garden. Their stalks tend to lean with the weight of the flowers, but I’ve never needed to stake them. Blooming lasts about three weeks in my yard. And that’s not the end of the show.
After the petals fall, fat pods fill with papery seeds. As the seeds mature, the pods turn upward, producing an elegant candelabra form. When the pods open, breezes disperse the lightweight seeds all over the garden. I’ve had quite a crop of volunteer seedlings some years, but they are easy to remove or relocate, so I don’t consider this a fatal flaw.
I use some of the dried seedpod structures in flower arrangements. But I always leave plenty in place to dress up the winter landscape. When one of our rare snows fills the candelabra cups, the effect is nothing short of magical.
My mother, Rita, died this past Saturday. She had been ill for a very long time, and her children know her release from this existence was a blessing.
My mother – a born and bred belle from Memphis, Tennessee – was the first to open my eyes to the beauty and wonder of flowers. Native vegetation did not fascinate her the way it enthralls me, but she knew the difference between a Red Maple, a White Oak, and a Sycamore, and she revealed those secrets to me when I was six or seven.
As a young mother, Rita enjoyed escaping the endless travails of child-rearing by puttering in her gardens. She grew the pretty flowers that her mother grew in Memphis: deep purple irises that always smelled faintly like bubble gum to my nose, orange and yellow lilies, snowy Shasta daisies, and chrysanthemums in an array of deep golds and bronzes, with spicy scents that still evoke for me the smell of burning leaves and the bite of crisp autumnal air.
Rita permitted my ten-year-old self to create my first wildflower garden in a north-facing flowerbed beside our towering brick home. I had noticed that this shady spot always seemed a bit damp; moss was trying to establish itself there. And I had observed that some of the common wildflowers I saw during my explorations of nearby second-growth Piedmont forest flourished in similar conditions.
So I went out to the woods, dug up a few bluets, violets, and some of the deep, thick moss that I called carpet moss, and carefully transplanted them beside the tall chrysanthemums that dominated the corner of the bed. Of course, now I know that one should never dig up flowers from the wild. But I was ten, and the flowers and moss I relocated occurred commonly throughout our Piedmont woods; I’m certain no lasting harm was done to the local ecosystem.
Rita shook her head at my little wildflower bed. The diminutive scale of pale bluets and purple violets – and the fleeting nature of their blooms – seemed a waste of effort to the drama-loving Memphis belle, who preferred color and fragrance in her flowers. But she indulged my enthusiasm, and by doing so, she played a big part in setting me on a lifelong flora-filled path.
Thanks for that, Rita. I pray you are at peace, enjoying a garden full of light and love.
In my previous post, I described a few changes in the local wildlife that serve as markers for the transition from Summer to Fall. I neglected to mention one of my favorite declarers of impending Autumn: Argiope aurantia, commonly called the Writing Spider or the Black and Yellow Garden Spider.
I began to notice some smaller specimens setting up shop among my tomato plants about a month ago. But this is the first sizable spider I’ve seen. She is probably not quite full grown, but she’s getting there. She erected her web among the tall blooming stalks of Cardinal Flowers that share space with Pitcher Plants in pots immersed in my front garden water feature.
It’s a perfect spot for a hungry spider. Unwary local pollinators drawn to the ruby throats of the Cardinal Flowers make easy prey for the quick reflexes of this predator. She is building up her reserves before creating her egg sac, which will protect hordes of tiny spiderlings until spring sunshine calls them forth.
I know this is a female because of her appearance, and the fact that males roam about in search of females; they don’t build webs. When they find a potential mate, they court her by plucking the strings of her web, sending vibrations through the gossamer threads that entice her toward him. After mating, the male usually dies, and the females eat their bodies. Unlike their Black Widow Spider sisters or female Praying Mantises, Writing Spider females do not actively kill their lovers; they merely don’t let a good meal go to waste.
Writing Spiders are so named for the squiggly zigzag of silk in the center of the web (a stabilimentum, technically speaking). Scientists have several theories about the purpose of this structure. Some think it attracts prey. Others think it makes the web more visible to those who might unintentionally walk through it. I know in my yard when I approach a Writing Spider’s web I haven’t seen, my first clue is usually when the occupant begins strongly vibrating the web, and the first thing I notice is usually that zigzagging bit of silk in the center. But just because it prevents me from walking through the web doesn’t mean that’s what her “writing” is there for.
Maybe the scientists haven’t yet stumbled upon the real reason for the Writing Spider’s silken signal. Perhaps she is conveying a message from Autumn, letting us know that the time for summer frolicking is nearly done. Leaf raking, pumpkin carving, and turkey stuffing will accompany crisper air, bluer skies, and the bedding down of flora and fauna for another winter’s sleep.
I’ve been walking Piedmont woods and gardening in Piedmont soils for over four decades now. The inhabitants of Piedmont fields and forests, wetlands, and gardens are old, dear friends. Over all those years we’ve been together, I’ve come to recognize the rhythm of southeast Piedmont seasons. I know their sounds, smells, and sights well enough to identify seasonal cycles by these signs.
Right now, despite relentless sweltering heat and humidity, my Piedmont yard and gardens are hinting at autumn’s imminent arrival. I knew this first by the sounds.
Gone are the days and nights of wall-shaking summer cicada thrumming. The sounds of their mating noises are now intermittent, diminishing in volume and frequency with each passing day. Replacing their serenade are the field crickets. I rarely hear the crickets in spring and early summer. But now they are entering their dominant time in the seasonal song cycle. Their sweet, softer leg-rubbing choruses make sticky late-summer nights feel gentler. They coax the sun over the horizon before quieting during the heat of the day.
Gone are the bird mating songs. No longer are the Wood Thrushes haunting the deep woods with their flute-like cadences. The Rufus-Sided Towhees are silent; woodpeckers no longer drum their territorial declarations on hollow trees. And the swooping aerial whine of the pendulum dance of Red-Throated Hummingbirds has been replaced by their constant chittering as they argue over feeder access and tasty flower nectar, intent on fattening themselves for their upcoming southward migration that grows closer with each sunset.
Smells of late summer are mostly those of over-ripeness as damaged or overlooked fruits grow moldy, sliming the shoes of unobservant walkers. Toadstools emerge in greater numbers after every thunderstorm. The leaves of wind-damaged oak branches grow brown and soft, releasing acrid tannins into moisture-thickened air.
Sights of season-turning abound to the eyes of this experienced Piedmont observer. Take the Pokeweeds, for example. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) can be found up and down the eastern half of the United States. It pops up all over my yard and gardens, thanks to the help of the birds, who find the juicy purple berries to be a favorite late-summer treat. In my sandy loam soil, the fleshy roots of this common native perennial grow to spectacular dimensions. Wonder Spouse uses a mattock to dig them out, often hauling off roots bigger than my head.
But you have to admit, Pokeweed is a pretty plant. The purple-red stems are quite visually striking. In my yard, the plants routinely grow to heights of seven or eight feet. And the contrast of ripe purple berries against magenta stems is stunning. I know a number of local gardeners, especially those who favor native plants, who deliberately invite Pokeweed into their flower gardens.
Although I haven’t issued any formal invitations, Pokeweeds find their way into every corner of our five acres every year. I mostly tolerate their presence, knowing how much they contribute to the food supply of local wildlife. Besides the songbirds, raccoons, opossums, and foxes also find the berries irresistible. And the deer — but they eat everything, don’t they?
Ripe Pokeweed berries — along with other sights, smells, and sounds — signal the waning of summer and the promise of approaching fall as reliably as any paper calendar. To everything there is a season.
Thirty seconds of water every other day. That’s what every vegetable plant in my garden was getting for the last three weeks. The shallow well I use for the vegetable garden was mostly gone. By alternating days and severely limiting the amount of water each plant got, I was able to coax the well to produce a small stream of water — just enough to keep most of the vegetables from surrendering to the record heat (numerous 100+ degree days in a row, multiple weeks) and unrelenting drought. Every watering day was a race to see how many plants I could water before the stream emerging from the hose began to thin and cough.
Finally this past weekend — the miracle that every drought-plagued gardener prays for — rain! Real rain. Not the ten-second showers that only wet the tops of the canopy trees. This was two days of off-and-on bona fide, blessed rain. All told, we got 2.13 inches. Yes, so much water so fast has caused some of the tomatoes to split as the skins are unable to stretch fast enough to accommodate swelling fruits. But that’s not a big problem. The best strategy is to pick the splitters before they’re fully vine ripe and allow them to finish reddening on the kitchen counter.
The addition of soil-reviving moisture throughout the garden has caused the veggies that were limping along to surge into high gear. Productivity of the tomato plants especially is verging on the ridiculous. My fifteen plants (I pulled out a dying Purple Russian over a month ago) are over a foot taller than my seven-foot trellises, and fruit production does not seem to be slowing appreciably. Here’s a shot of a part of the garden to show you what I mean:
That’s a wall of tomatoes in the back. In front are some ripening Carmen (Italian bull) peppers surrounded by basils and marigolds. As you can see, it’s a party out there.
And the Fortex pole beans? Have mercy! They topped their six-foot trellis over a month ago. Now they’ve fully grown down the other side, and they’re starting back up again. That’s over 12 feet of bean vine, and I planted a lot of beans. Here’s a shot of the bean wall I took this morning:
The zucchinis all surrendered to the heat and squash vine borers. The Honey Bear acorn winter squashes are limping along. After we harvested the first four mature fruits, they flowered again and produced two more. It’s a race to see whether these fruits will be able to fully mature before the vines expire.
But the other member of the cucurbit family I’m growing this year is still hanging tough. These are the late-sown Diva cucumbers. During the height of the heat wave and drought, I wasn’t able to give them enough water to help them form fully perfect fruits. But the rain has changed that. Fruits are lengthening fast, and the vines are still actively growing. What a surprise they’ve been. Here’s a shot from this morning:
And not to be outdone are the sunflowers. I bought the packets locally and promptly lost the names after I sowed the seeds. But you’ve got to admit they’re looking mighty impressive:
You need a close-up to fully appreciate these lovely flowers:
And finally, the totals for today’s harvest. In that basket at the top of this post were 35 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes, 20 Viva Italia plum tomatoes, 9 small slicing tomatoes (a mix of Ferline and Italian Goliath), 4 big slicing tomatoes (Big Beefs and Early Goliaths), 9 beans (7 Jade bush beans and 2 Fortex pole beans), and 1 Apple sweet pepper.
I’m off to make and freeze tomato sauce, so that we can taste a bit of summer’s bounty when winter’s chill frosts the windows. Here’s hoping the rains will be more frequent, now that they’ve found us again.