Archive for October, 2011
Serious gardeners are weather watchers for good reason. In spring, I try to get beds weeded and crops sowed before predicted bouts of rain. During the summer, I watch for thunderstorms packing hail and damaging winds, and try to compensate for prolonged heat and drought with measured doses of precious water. During early fall, I listen to the weather seers very closely for frost/freeze predictions.
This year, we didn’t get any frosts before our hard freeze. My hillside thermometer registered 27 degrees F this morning, and by afternoon, my tender pineapple sage and other flowers were looking mighty depressed. I count myself lucky. The poor folks in the northeast got heavy, wet snow before their first frost — while many of their deciduous trees are still cloaked in leaves! Now that’s just cruel of Mother Nature, if you ask me.
Fortunately, the local meteorologists predicted this frigid turn of events well in advance, so I spent the past week running around at warp speed planting newly arrived perennials and trees (more on those another time), picking every vegetable worth picking, preparing my greenhouse for my potted plants that summer beneath my magnolia, and moving those plants to the greenhouse. Oh yes, I had to, ahem, remove the giant pokeweeds and trees growing in the beds surrounding the greenhouse too; otherwise, no light would have gotten to the plants within at all. Thanks to Wonder Spouse for his help accomplishing that strenuous task.
That basket full of delight in the photo above contained 34 Carmen Italian Bull’s Horn sweet peppers, 11 Apple sweet peppers, 2 Viva Italia paste tomatoes, 3 small slicer tomatoes, and 12 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes. I’m missing those fresh tomatoes already!
Here’s a shot of the greenhouse after I straightened it up a bit inside, swept it out, and watered down the capillary cloth on the shelves and pavers on the floor:
Those of you who maintain greenhouses will likely notice that mine isn’t exactly clean. However, I keep it shut all summer, and the sun kills everything growing in there that’s not supposed to be there. Also, I don’t grow anything prissy enough to be offended by my untidiness.
Here are my potted plants enjoying their last few moments in their summer spot beneath my big evergreen Southern Magnolia:
The dense leaf canopy of this tree prevents heavy rains from damaging my potted plants, and its shade prevents the afternoon sun from frying them. They seem to like it there. One year, I found a Gray Treefrog living in a pot with one of the plants.
Here they are all moved into their winter quarters:
I’m only showing you one side, because at that point, the plants that summer in my front water feature were waiting for Wonder Spouse to come home and help me move them. Waterlogged pots are very heavy. When he arrived, we moved those pots; they now occupy the shelf and floor across from the shelf you see here.
The frigid temperatures were preceded by a day of wonderful rain. We got nine-tenths of an inch! I knew that rain was predicted, so I utilized the beautiful, sunny fall day before that to accomplish all these urgent garden chores. The insects also seemed to know what was coming. Honey and Carpenter Bees bustled in record numbers around my flowers as I worked. The pineapple sages and lantanas hummed with activity, and bees bumped into me more than once as we tried to occupy the same space simultaneously.
I also saw more butterflies that day than I had seen in several weeks. Numerous little skippers danced among the lantanas. Two Monarchs also couldn’t seem to get enough of those flowers. I urged them to fly south while the weather held, but they lingered even after dusk began to darken the landscape. Here’s hoping they made it safely out of the reach of the early freeze.
Next gardening chore: fall clean-up — oh goodie!
One of the many reasons I love living in the central part of North Carolina known as the Research Triangle is the abundance of very smart, dedicated, innovative people who live here. The presence of three major universities (Duke University in Durham, University of NC at Chapel Hill, and NC State University in Raleigh) provides regular folks like me with access to information that might not otherwise be so easy to find.
Fueled in part by this abundance of enthusiastic intelligence, a diverse number of non-profit groups provides a means to focus on and at least ameliorate some of the many important concerns of our times. For example, the Triangle Land Conservancy is doing much important work in the counties that comprise the Research Triangle region of NC. That includes occasionally hosting what they call regional conservation summits on key environmental issues. The one I attended yesterday was on “Conserving Land to Safeguard Clean Water.”
No, this does not mean the solution is to buy all the land and leave it in its pristine state, although certain key areas adjacent to our waterways and reservoirs usually function best when clothed in native vegetation. It does mean that local, regional, and national governments need to be thinking much more seriously about how we can ensure that future generations will have enough clean water to survive, even flourish.
It’s a much bigger concern that most of us realize. Many wise people believe that clean, abundant water will be the resource we run out of first — not petroleum. The free summit I attended yesterday was open to anyone in my region interested in the issue. Besides regular citizens like me, I saw government officials, government employees, and academic and other professionals who study the future of water on our planet.
Most interesting to me was the message from the keynote speaker — Al Appleton, former Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System. He said the same thing about water that I say about Piedmont gardening: It’s all about knowing your place.
In Mr. Appleton’s case, he means we need to help everyone better understand and appreciate their local watersheds — the topographic complex of hills and valleys around us that directs stream and rain runoff into the low points, such as lakes and man-made reservoirs, from which we draw our drinking water. In the case of well water users like me, the health of my local watershed is even more important, because I drink the water that filters down to become the groundwater deposits I count on.
In the case of Piedmont gardening, I think we are all more effective, happier gardeners when we understand and appreciate our local environment. That includes understanding where the water goes, as well as what the native vegetation around us tells us about our yards, so that we can improve our landscapes with well-adapted plants that enhance the native environment, beautify our yards, and feed and shelter native wildlife we enjoy.
When you live near water, it’s easier to see these connections. The creek that forms the eastern boundary of my yard serves as a clear indicator of the health of my local watershed and the plants and animals that depend on it.
By last April, for example, the impact of the multi-year drought on my region was obvious:
If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can see that many of the roots of that large tree are dangling above the water. Water levels in my creek have been too low most of the time now for the past five or so years. Increasingly rare floods scour the curves of the creek, undercutting adjacent trees, whose roots then hang dry above the water when the floods recede. The photo above was taken after a minor rain. Still, it was enough to cloud the water with sediment carried there by upstream developments with poor, or broken, sedimentation controls. It happens every time it rains now, and the freshwater snails and clams that once thrived in my creek have been gone for over ten years, their habitats buried beneath the sediment load.
In the southeast Piedmont, our precipitation patterns seem to be trending toward prolonged periods of drought punctuated by occasional, often destructive, flood events. As an obsessed gardener, my constant challenge to is grow a landscape that can thrive under these conditions. Pampered lawns of non-native grasses maintained by chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not the best option. Native plants — and well-chosen, non-invasive non-natives — arranged to mimic the layers of the native forests of the Piedmont — seem to work best for me. A resilient landscape is my goal, one that can handle floods like this one that overwhelmed my creek a few Septembers ago:
You can find many excellent Web resources to help you nurture your local watershed by searching on “watershed protection.” A great place to start is the information provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency here.
The next time you’re looking at your backyard landscape, consider where the water is going, and ask yourself: What have I done for — or to — my local watershed lately?
Insects and arachnids abound in my yard year-round. Even in January, Black Widow Spiders loiter under rocks, and large Garden Spiders guarding their egg sacs can be unintentionally uncovered when clearing debris from flower beds. Honey bees exploit any winter day with highs above 60 degrees F, frantically seeking pollen from my early bloomers.
The pace — and the quantity — of insect life visibly slows as autumn’s chilly grip tightens. Most of these creatures complete their life cycles in a year. Cold autumn mornings tend to catch these aging bugs snoozing — probably dying — in locations where I don’t see them in summer.
Take the Wheel Bug in the above photo. This is a kind of assassin bug, meaning it preys on any other insect it can pin with its long legs. That long tube extending down from its head is its piercing mouth apparatus. It stabs its victims and sucks their juicy innards dry. Note that I flipped this photo upside down here, so that you might more easily appreciate its structure.
In my yard and garden, Wheel Bugs are welcome. They are largely beneficial, since they eat a lot of stink bugs, caterpillars, and other pest insects that would otherwise devour my flowers and vegetables.
Named for the wheel-looking growth on their backs, I think these critters look like robot bugs; the wheels on their backs make them look mechanically driven to my eye. If you see such a creature in your yard, do NOT pick it up with your bare hands, no matter how slowly it is moving. These insect predators will stab anything within reach, including your fingers. I’ve read that the wounds can induce allergic reactions in some folks, but they hurt like the dickens in all folks, and the wounds take over a month to heal in most.
Here’s another recent visitor I spotted dining on my lantana leaves:
Yes, I know it’s not actually yellow. According to my caterpillar bible (Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner), the colors of this caterpillar vary widely, from nearly black, through orange, yellow, and beige. Their diagnostic characteristic are the long hairs — almost three times longer than their bodies — that protrude from their backs. If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see them more easily.
The rule of thumb with hairy caterpillars is to assume those hairs will sting, inflicting significant pain and possible allergic reactions if they encounter your skin. Treat all such caterpillars with respect. I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Wagner lecture on caterpillars when he visited the NC Botanical Garden a few years ago. This is a man dedicated to his work. He told the audience that he deliberately pressed hairy caterpillars onto his arm to see if they stung him — I kid you not!
This caterpillar becomes a Virginian Tiger Moth, a fairly nondescript mostly white moth whose larvae eat most any plant they encounter.
Here’s a Green Shield Bug that was dozing in the morning chill on a chair on my deck:
My apologies for the less-than-great photo. The light was uncooperative. This member of the stink bug family spends its days sucking out the life juices from my veggies, flowers, and other plants. In so doing, they often introduce diseases into the plants they prey on. In short, I don’t like these bugs. But when I saw this bright green bug contrasted against the brown of my chair, I thought it might be worthy of a photo, especially since I know it was only there because its days are numbered. It may well have fallen from the tree above as cold nights and a rapidly aging body impede its ability to cling to vegetation.
And finally, I’ll leave you with a dozing Carpenter Bee:
Carpenter Bees only live one growing season. On chilly autumn mornings, I find them slumbering atop many of my remaining flowers, including the Pineapple Sage, which they seem to especially enjoy. Its not a bad way to go — slumbering among the flowers. Most of the late sleepers will eventually rouse as the sun hits them. Eventually, I do begin to find expired bee bodies on the ground beneath the plants. These bees are very fuzzy looking, especially their heads and yellow backs. I love to gently stroke those parts — a bit like stroking a cat — while they are too cold to argue. I taught my nephew this trick when he was a wee lad. He had been afraid of bees, but knowing that — at the right time of year — they were so docile helped him overcome his fear.
Lots of folks fear or hate insects and spiders, and, to me, that’s a shame. Their presence in your garden and yard — in balanced quantities — indicates you’re maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Doing so means less work for you, as beneficial insects keep the troublesome ones in check. And their behaviors and never-ending diversity serve as endless sources for exploration and entertainment.
A cold front blew in today. Actually, it’s still blowing in, which is why tonight the Weather Seers are calling for a low of merely 42 degrees Fahrenheit. However, that’s the temperature predicted for the airport about 30 miles from my house. If the winds abate sooner than expected, my garden will chill down to the upper 30s. And tomorrow’s low — when the winds have departed — is supposed to be 39 degrees, which means my house will be flirting with the low 30s.
You see, I live in a cold spot. I think it’s the topography of my yard. By the street, my yard is near the top of a long hill. It gradually curves down to the wide floodplain that borders our creek. As you may know, cold air likes low spots. When it finds my hilltop, it cascades downward until it reaches the creek. Then, I think, like water behind a dam, the cold builds, gradually creeping up the hill, so that when the temperature is teetering near freezing for most folks, it will be freezing in my yard.
My vegetable garden is at the top of the hill. Tall pines shelter it from the road, and provide some protection from chilly west winds. But only some.
I could have probably waited until tomorrow, but I decided to pick anything that looked remotely ripe today. Better safe, as the saying goes — especially when delicate, tasty peppers are at stake.
This afternoon I picked four Carmen Italian Bull’s Horn sweet peppers, 1 Apple pepper, a handful of Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes, a couple of little Viva Italia paste tomatoes, and two good handfuls of Fortex pole beans.
The beans have been the biggest surprise of the summer/fall growing seasons. They just won’t quit. Only the vines on half of the trellis are still alive, but those plants refuse to concede to winter’s impending arrival. They still bloom, and flower-hungry pollinators argue over who gets the honor of ensuring that every flower grows to beanhood. I think, perhaps, today might have been their final harvest. But never say never with these astonishing beans. They are already on my “to plant” list for next year, that’s for certain.
This has been the most productive and healthiest garden I’ve had in many years, despite a continuing drought and about a month of prolonged, above-normal temperatures. I attribute my success to compost. I never seem to be able to produce enough to give my veggies all they need. So last spring, we invested in a truckload of compost from a local place that provides topsoils, mulches, and compost. We went to their site and inspected it, of course, before buying a load. Given the productivity I saw this year, it was money well spent.
Gazillions of studies have shown that compost harbors beneficial organisms and micronutrients that promote growth and inhibit diseases and pests. My garden is all the evidence I need to be convinced. And, yes, I see another truckload of compost in my garden’s future. We’ll have it delivered by February, so we’ll have time to spread it, wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load, onto the veggie beds. It’s hard work for aging bodies; the cooler late winter air keeps it tolerable if you pace yourself.
But late October harvests of delicious, beautiful vegetables more than make up for every sore muscle and creaky knee that arise from spreading that black gold through the garden.
I added Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) to the shady inner edge of my floodplain about 15 years ago. What started out as a small shrub is now a small tree — about 12 feet tall and equally wide. The branches are a bit floppy; it’s not a shrub/tree to plant in formal areas. But it does a fine job of filling in a shady spot in my landscape.
This southeastern US native occurs naturally along streams, swamp edges, and the moist slopes of uplands, which is why I sited my specimen in a similar location. I planted this native to help fill in my once-sparse forest understory layer and to provide food for wildlife. It fulfills both these goals admirably and offers landscape value too. Summer leaves are glossy, reflecting light beneath the shade of a large red maple. Its fall color is a deep maroon that develops after most other deciduous trees have lost their leaves for the season. The flowers and fruits are also quite eye-catching.
Typical viburnum white flat-topped flower clusters glow softly in the growing shade of late spring, attracting myriad insect visitors. These busy pollinators ensure excellent fruit set. Individual fruits start out pinkish-red and mature to a dark blue. Here’s a close-up of some fruit clusters on my specimen:
You may notice that the above shot doesn’t show many blue fruits. I think that’s because the birds are eating them as soon as they are fully ripe. All the fruit-eating birds — from robins to cardinals to woodpeckers (oh yes, they love fruits) argue over who gets to devour the blue drupes. The common name — Possumhaw — refers to the fact that possums and raccoons also enjoy these fruits. Deer will browse the entire plant — mine is now tall enough that they can’t reach it all.
That common name — Possumhaw — is shared by another native shrub of our moist spots. It’s a completely different species — a deciduous holly, also commonly called Winterberry, for the fact that its bright red berries linger on the branches after the leaves fall. The fruits of this holly (Ilex decidua) are not as enthusiastically devoured as its same-named viburnum counterpart, but they do eventually get eaten as winter progresses.
Some folks call Winterberry Possumhaw Holly to distinguish it from Possumhaw Viburnum, but you’ll also find both shrubs/trees referred to simply as Possumhaw. The “possum” front end of the name seems likely to refer to one of the critters that likes to eat it, but I found myself wondering about the “haw” part.
It seemed likely that “haw” referred to the fruit, but that confused me because the hollies produce individual berry-like drupes that ripen from green to red, and the viburnum in question produces clusters of berry-like drupes that ripen from reddish-pink to blue. How can these both be haws?
A quick survey via my favorite search engine provided an answer. Apparently, the English colonists who settled this region weren’t interested in finer botanical distinctions. If an animal or plant reminded them of one from back home in England, they tended to call it by that old familiar name. That’s how our American Robin got its name, even though it’s not remotely kin (nor that physically similar) to the European Robin.
And it’s also why several bushes with red fruits — at any stage of their ripening process — got called Haws. You see, the European Hawthorn they grew up with produces red fruits they called Haws, so anything in the New World of about the same size and character with red fruits was called a Haw. As for the “Possum” part of Possumhaw, I imagine that the colonists either observed these creatures eating the fruits, or found them inside their stomachs when they prepared the possums for cooking.
All this is a long-winded way of telling you that common names of plants can be colorful, but to be sure you’re getting what you want, stick with their botanical names. If you’ve got a shady, somewhat moist spot for an attractive understory shrub/small tree that will feed wildlife, put Viburnum nudum on your list of options. It’s guaranteed to enhance your landscape and draw the attention of human, four-legged, and winged admirers.
My Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) has been blooming sporadically for about three weeks. Now it has hit its stride, producing numerous scarlet blooms on plants about three feet tall and equally wide. They are magnificent.
Every late summer/early fall, I wait impatiently for the first buds of this native of the oak and pine scrub forests of Mexico and Guatemala to open. All summer, this tender herb puts on serious leaf mass. This is great for two reasons.
First, the leaves are pretty and pest free, so they bring a freshness to the late summer border. And, more importantly, the leaves possess a delicate fragrance and taste that I adore. The leaves of this member of the mint family really do smell and taste like pineapple. They are wonderful brewed into a light summer herbal tea, baked into a pound cake, or adding a surprising twist to fruit salads — or green salads, for that matter. Culinarily speaking, you can’t go wrong adding a bit of this delicate herb to almost any dish you can imagine.
As wonderful as the leaves are, it’s the flowers that I wait impatiently for. About mid-September, I finally begin to see the unusual closed flower clusters bowing inconspicuously beneath the leaves like this:
As the flowers in the cluster begin to open one by one, the bloom stalk unbends and reaches for sunlight like this:
Eventually, my group of several plants is covered in erect, long-blooming flower clusters that stand above the fragrant foliage like this:
Every remaining pollinator passing through my yard seems to find these gorgeous — and apparently tasty — blooms. Migrating Monarch butterflies stop by for a sip. Carpenter bees weigh down the stalks with their heavy bodies. Best of all, migrating Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds seem irresistibly drawn to these scarlet sirens.
I’ll be taking down my hummingbird feeder next week, after I am certain that the hummingbirds are mostly — if not entirely — done with my yard until next April. My summer resident birds left a couple of weeks ago. But I am still getting an occasional visitor migrating from more northern regions. I fancy that my blooming Pineapple Sages serve as the equivalent of neon welcome signs at roadside motels. Hummers spot the promise of food from the air and descend to linger for a few hours, sometimes overnight. As silently as the migrants appear, they are gone.
Pineapple Sage serves as a key season change indicator in my garden. I greet its abundant blooms with delight tinged with a hint of melancholy, knowing that my scarlet welcome mat will soon be browned by the first killing frost, and that summer pollinators will disappear until spring sunshine reawakens my garden next year.
I have been an avid supporter of the North Carolina Zoo since it opened a few decades ago. It is located in the middle of the state, about an hour’s drive due west from my house. Although the leaves are barely turning where I live, in Asheboro, the home of the NC Zoo, autumn was definitely beginning to show itself.
Asheboro, NC is located on textbook-gorgeous southeastern Piedmont terrain, and the horticultural staff at the NC Zoo has done a spectacular job of enhancing the native vegetation on the site with additional plantings that enrich the exhibits and beautify the grounds. I admit it freely: I go to the NC Zoo to see the plants more than the animals — although the animals are quite impressive too.
The Sweet Gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) were really starting to redden nicely. Wonder Spouse took the photo above; he also extracted the fall banner image at the top of this blog from this photo. I never grow weary of that rich maroon they often display this time of year.
Acorns from numerous Chestnut Oaks (Quercus montana) littered the Piedmont hills that shelter the Zoo’s exhibits. And I spotted a native Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) with branches weighed down by numerous golden-orange fruits. Wonder Spouse was kind enough to take a picture of them for me:
Don’t try eating these tempting-looking fruits until after the first hard frost, unless you like the inside of your mouth to feel permanently puckered.
One of the coolest things the horticultural staff has accomplished lately is the planting of the constructed wetland they built adjacent to the parking lot for the North America section of the Zoo. Much science and engineering went into building this wetland, which is designed to serve as a filter system for rainwater runoff from the parking lot while simultaneously educating the public about the importance and beauty of our native wetlands.
I was blown away by the obvious vigor of this man-made wetland. The native plants that are helping to filter runoff look very happy, as do the native animals that have found their way to this spot:
The horticultural staff has planted many of my favorite moisture-loving native plants along the edges of the wetland, including Scarlet Rosemallow (Hibiscus coccineus), whose large red flowers always look to me like botanical satellite dishes. See what I mean here:
The Pickerel Weed in the wetland is spectacular. I wrote about my sad little specimen here. But this is what it looks like when it’s really happy:
A member of the Zoo’s horticultural staff overheard me admiring these gorgeous Pickerel Weeds, and he confided that the staff had been forced to water the plants most of this past summer. Asheboro experienced the same severe drought that my yard endured. The constructed wetland dried up, and supplemental water was added to keep the new plantings alive until the rains returned. Water levels are still low, but they are high enough now to keep the plantings happy.
I’ll leave you with three final images of this gorgeous wetland. All the photo’s in today’s blog entry were taken by ace photographer Wonder Spouse. I think these three would make mind-blowingly difficult jigsaw puzzles.
Here’s a shot that features some healthy native cattails in the foreground:
This shot reminds me of a painting by Monet. Water lilies are backed by Pickerel Weeds:
And finally, here’s a wider shot that shows you more of the water lilies, Pickerel Weeds, sedges, and other native plants:
The Zoo’s constructed wetland features several wooden walkways that protrude into the wetland, so that visitors can get closer to these wonderful plants. Besides the turtles, we also saw a few ducks, and numerous frogs. In summer, I imagine colorful dragonflies also animated this special spot.
I have promised myself that I will return to this wetland during the other three seasons. I imagine that winter snows, new spring growth, and summer’s full green vigor will provide additonal perspectives on this landscape. Autumn has already muted the colors and textures of this wetland a bit. I like the look of the still-blooming flowers among the browning foliage.
The signals are clear: seize the waning sunlight while you can, before winter’s silent embrace makes us long for spring’s color and song.
Over the last twenty-plus years, I’ve been adding small trees and shrubs to my landscape with two main goals: increased beauty and improved wildlife habitat. Every plant I’ve added meets one or both of these objectives, including this native shrub — American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
This shrub, native to moist woodland edges and pine woods throughout the southeast, will usually grow 3-5 feet tall, but it’s been known to get as tall as 9 feet. I’d guess that mine is about six feet tall. Its habit is loose and open, and the leaves are rather large, arranged oppositely each other in pairs on the stems. It does well at the back of a border or mixed in with other understory plants in naturalized areas, where it goes unnoticed until this time of year, when the fruits light up my woodland.
On my plant, neon-magenta fruits (technically, drupes) as shiny as Mardi Gras beads grow in big clusters around the branch stems at the leaf axils. I’ve read that fruit color in the species varies from more violet and pink shades to the electrifying magenta of my plant, and you can also find white-fruited forms. I like the way the fruit clusters on my specimen light up the forest edge, where it thrives at the bottom of a hill.
You’ll often see recommendations to cut this shrub back to no more than a foot tall in late winter to help you maintain a moderate-sized shrub. This works, but my recommendation is to site plants with their mature size in mind, allowing them to grow into their designated space without exceeding it.
Birds are supposed to like the fruits. My references say they are favored by Northern Bobwhites, American Robins, Cardinals, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, and Brown Thrashers, among others. However, in my yard, they are a food of last resort, usually shriveling into raisin-like clusters by late winter before they are finally consumed.
White-tailed Deer are supposed to eat the leaves of this shrub with moderate enthusiasm, but I’ve never noticed any signs of deer browsing on my specimen. They’re also supposed to favor the fruit clusters after leaf fall, but again, I’ve seen no evidence of that in my yard. Raccoon and Opossums are also supposed to like the fruits. Maybe my shrub has particularly bad-tasting fruits, because I’ve seen no signs of their nibbling either.
My many-branched shrub produces excellent fruit crops in all but the most severe drought years. Here’s a shot that gives you a better idea of fruit spacing along the branches:
The apparent unpopularity of the fruits with the wildlife in my yard frees me of any guilt when I cut a few branches to display in the house. Paired with short evergreen magnolia branches and a few late flowers, the berried branches add pizzazz to indoor autumn arrangements.
In my opinion, this easy-going native shrub should adorn more Piedmont yards. Its low-maintenance requirements, tolerance of many soils and levels of shade, and its electrifying autumn fruits will brighten any landscape.
When I took this photo, I didn’t even notice the spider hiding below the flower, waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator to drop by and become its dinner. All my attention was on the bloom of this lovely native wildflower common to our moist, shady woodlands. Most folks I know call it Jewelweed, probably because the yellow and orange flowers glow like gems among its tall, succulent stems and green scalloped leaves. Another name is Spotted Touch-Me-Not, and I’ll tell you why in a moment. The botanists call this wildflower Impatiens capensis.
My floodplain is covered in large stands of this tall (2-5 feet) wildflower this year — the first year I’ve been able to say that in about seven or so years. In recent years, the deer population has been so heavy that these plants were chomped before they ever got a chance to bloom. But this year (knock wood), the deer seem much less abundant.
I suspect I can thank the enormous 1000-acre suburb being erected by a California developer just a mile or so from my house. A few years ago, when the bulldozers erased the mature forest on that spot, all the displaced deer moved to my yard — or at least that’s how it seemed to me. For a few years, those displaced deer were so hungry that they ate everything — even the poisonous plants like pokeweed and Mayapple. But now, deer browsing is much less severe. I think the deer have gone back to graze on the newly planted lawns and fertilized shrubs planted by the California development company. Given a choice between fertilized ornamental plants and native growth, I’ve observed that deer will eat the fertilized goodies every time. Frankly, I’d rather have the thousand acres of forest back. But since I can’t, it seems only fair that the deer have returned to graze their old stomping grounds.
Now my Jewelweeds flourish in every corner of my floodplain. See how the back end of the flower in the photo above tapers to a point? That’s custom built for hummingbird dining pleasure. They zip among the flowers sipping nectar as soon as the flowers start blooming in late June. Migrant hummers passing through to their winter homes south of here can spot my stands of Jewelweed easily. I like knowing I help ease their travels. The last straggler is long gone before frost kills these long-blooming wildflowers.
As for the Touch-Me-Not designation, that’s because of their nifty seed pods. These longish pods swell as the seeds develop. When they’re mature, the lightest touch causes them to explosively split open and shoot their seeds in all directions. It’s great fun to coax the pods into exploding between your fingers. I’ve never met a child or adult who isn’t instantly enthralled by this activity. Here’s a shot of flowers and pods:
Now you’ll know what to look for when you spot these distinctive yellow and orange flowers. The fatter the seed pod, the more violent the explosion. No wonder the flowers spread themselves around — those seeds travel quite a ways when the pods pop.
Butterflies and bees also love these flowers, and the juice of the stems is purported to cure the itch of poison ivy rashes. I’ve never tried this, but I know some folks who swear by this remedy. Jewelweed conveniently tends to grow in the same kinds of places that poison ivy likes, so you may one day find yourself in a position to try this folk cure. The juice also has documented fungicidal properties and has been used to cure Athlete’s Foot. I’ve never had the need to try that remedy either.
But even if this lovely wildflower had no medicinal properties, it would be worth adding to your moist shady spots for the hummingbirds and other pollinators — and to light up your shaded areas with their warm jewel-like colors.