Archive for January, 2012
I fell in love with Carolina bays a few decades back during a coastal ecology class. I’m talking about three tree species known as “Carolina bays,” not the geological/ecological entities where they live, which are also quite fascinating.
Most of the North Carolina inner coastal plain is flat, and before settlers drained it extensively, much of it was swampland covered by thick growths of mostly evergreen shrubs and trees that harbored abundant wildlife (slightly drier areas were covered by vast forests of Longleaf Pine). These thick growths of swampy vegetation were considered a hindrance by those who wanted to farm the land, which is why today you only find patches of this native ecotype, mostly in preserves that harbor bears and recently re-introduced red wolves, along with myriad birds and other creatures.
I think the settlers probably called these areas bays, because of the three species of small, evergreen trees that grew among the hollies and other vegetation characteristic of this ecotype. To the casual observer, they look vaguely alike, because they are all small trees, often shrubby in habit, and their leaves are evergreen and aromatic.
Cooks familiar with bay leaves may know they are leaves from the Bay Laurel (Laurel nobilis), a shrubby tree of the Mediterranean region. These aromatic leaves have been used to flavor food for thousands of years. Settlers of the NC coastal plain saw a similarity between the cooking bay they knew and three evergreen tree species of the swampy thickets, so all were named bays: Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus), Red Bay (Persea borbonia), and Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana).
If you crush leaves of these three trees, they smell sweetly spicy; each species smells slightly different, and all were used by the colonists to flavor food. Of the three species, Sweet Bay’s leave are the sweetest, which may be how it got its name. Although, the potently fragrant white flowers of this native magnolia may have also been responsible for that designation.
The natural range of this mostly evergreen (depends on the coldness of the winter) native magnolia extends to the lower, eastern Piedmont region. Twenty-two years ago when I realized part of my yard was a moist floodplain leading into a swamp, I decided to plant some bays. The Red Bay I planted is struggling to hang on; our recent drought years have been hard on it. The Sweet Bay, however, seems to be thriving. It is tall and skinny at about 25 feet high, and it disappears when all the floodplain trees wear their summer foliage.
Winter is when my Sweet Bay Magnolia shines. After I planted mine, I discovered a group of about four growing deeper in the swamp just off our property. These are clearly naturally occurring trees, which likely explains why the one I planted nearby is so happy. Yes, I laughed when I realized that Nature had beaten me to the punch.
My tree blooms in April, and because it’s so tall, I often forget to look for the flowers. But the seed cones are usually still visible by the time I remember to check on it.
However, in the winter landscape, I notice this tree every time I look out my window because of its leaves. The tops of the leaves are a nice deep green, but the undersides are pale silver. The gentlest of breezes lifts Sweet Bay’s leaves enough to show their metallic undersides. And when the barometric pressure changes, my Sweet Bay turns up all its leaves, sending a silver signal to warn me of an impending weather change.
If you’ve got a moist spot in your Piedmont yard, consider adding a Sweet Bay Magnolia. Horticulturalists have developed a number of cultivars that are more refined than the species. Some even have larger, more conspicuous flowers. All tolerate shade and wet roots, and all will flash their leafy silvery undersides at you when the winds make them dance.
I read about Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) in one of my gardening magazines about 12 years ago. I’m a sucker for trees and shrubs with exfoliating bark, and the description of the bark of this tree sounded like a worthy addition to my growing collection of special plants.
Native to Iran, this tree is a member of the Witch Hazel family (Hamamelidaceae), which means it blooms early and relatively inconspicuously, but it’s not the flowers that sell this plant. In fact, I’ve never actually caught my tree in bloom; I’m not even sure it does bloom, although I think I’ve found dried-up remnants of flowers when the leaves begin emerging.
My tree is only now getting big enough for the bark to begin exfoliating. In his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr notes that branches must attain diameters between 4-8 inches before exfoliation commences. Luckily for me, this tree has another attribute that was immediately obvious during its first autumn in my landscape. See the photo at the top? That was taken this past November. This tree looks that fabulous every single autumn, and the leaves persist on the tree for almost a month. Like a glowing golden magnet, this tree in its autumn splendor draws praise from all who see it. Here’s a close-up of the leaves from last November:
Dirr says this tree will mature to a height between 20-40 feet, so it’s a good fit for suburban Piedmont landscapes. And it seems to be pest and disease free. I always worry about a non-native plant’s potential to become invasive, but all reports seem to agree that this tree politely stays where it is planted. To see a photo of this species in bloom, try here.
As you can see in the top photo, the leaves create quite a dense cover during the growing season, so I must wait for every winter to admire the bark. I did so this morning. Here’s most of the tree:
You’ll note that some leaves are still clinging to the tree. Botanists call this being tardily deciduous. Still, enough of the leaves fall so that branches can be admired. Here’s a closer shot:
My apologies for the less-than-ideal photo. The morning light and my camera were not entirely cooperative. If you could see these branches a bit more closely, you’d notice that they are just beginning to show signs of exfoliation. I am hopeful that this will increase quickly now that the branch diameters seem to have attained the required size.
Many of the exfoliators in my landscape have reddish-brown bark — the Bald Cypresses, for example. Another non-native — Seven-Son Flower Tree — has almost pure white bark. The bark of Persian Ironwood reminds me a bit of the color of my American Beeches or my Ironwoods, but they don’t exfoliate. In my yard, this tree is near a Stewartia and a cluster of blueberries, both of which have reddish-brown exfoliating bark. The Persian Ironwood thus provides pleasing visual contrast in my winter landscape.
I have a feeling that if my tree does bloom, it’s likely to happen soon. This year, I’m going to make a special effort to watch for the flowers of this Persian beauty. If I succeed, I’ll be sure to let you know.
I got myself in trouble with a reader a few years back when I wrote about Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ in an article for a local newspaper about late winter/early spring bloomers. I based the description in my article on my personal experience with the cultivar — a tree currently producing the gorgeous flowers in the above photo. I wrote about how much I love the fragrance of Peggy’s flowers in an earlier blog entry here.
I happen to think the color of Peggy’s flowers is quite lovely. Most of the P. mume cultivars I see have much more pastel-colored flowers. My Peggy’s flowers are a rich, deep rosy pink — a real eye-catcher in the winter landscape.
But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s the fragrance of Peggy’s flowers that completely captivates me. Instead of the lightly sweet fragrance characteristic of most flowering apricot cultivars, my Peggy’s flowers smell strongly of sweet cinnamon. As I’ve written before, if I could figure out how to preserve and bottle that fragrance, I would be delighted beyond words.
And that’s how I got in trouble with that reader I mentioned. My enthusiastic prose describing my Peggy’s many wonderful attributes persuaded her to go out and buy the same cultivar to plant in her yard. When her young tree bloomed, I heard from her. The nursery she bought her specimen from insisted that it was indeed P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke,’ but her Peggy’s flowers were not the same color as my Peggy’s flowers — and worse, neither was the fragrance. Not a hint of a cinnamon undertone wafted from her Peggy’s flowers. She wrote, demanding an explanation from me. I didn’t have one, so I conducted an experiment, of sorts.
I bought three different P. mume cultivars when they first became available about 18 years ago from a local nurseryman who specializes in choice plants from Asia. A double-flowered white bloomer didn’t last more than a couple of years. Its fragrance was nice, but the tree didn’t bowl me over, and it clearly didn’t appreciate the site where I planted it. I do not remember its cultivar name.
The single-flowered pastel pink cultivar that I showed you here is still with us, blooming reliably every year, and emitting a light, sweet fragrance that is pleasant, but often so faint that I must stick my nose right in a flower to get a good whiff of it (note — check for honey bees before trying this maneuver).
The third cultivar I bought was P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke.’ I never forgot her name because she is such an exquisitely memorable tree when her flowers perfume the late winter air of my landscape. No kidding, I stop by this tree every day — rain or shine — when she’s blooming, for a bit of aromatherapy, inhaling the cinnamon goodness of her flowers. Peggy’s fragrance never fails to brighten my mood, no matter how dreary the day.
When my reader accosted me regarding her disappointment in buying a paler pink Peggy Clarke with no cinnamon note to its fragrance, I decided to buy another Peggy Clarke. I wondered if perhaps over the course of almost two decades that this cultivar had somehow changed. I think perhaps it has.
My original source for flowering apricots no longer sold Peggy Clarke, so I opted to buy from another source — a mail-order firm that had a good reputation. The tree that arrived was healthy, well-shaped, and certainly looked like a P. mume. Peggy Junior, as I call her, bloomed sparsely for us the second year, but it was enough to confirm what my reader had found. Peggy Junior was a pale imitation of Peggy Senior; her flowers were similarly shaped, but a much lighter shade — more of a carnation pink than a deep rose, as you can see in this close-up of Peggy Junior’s blooms this year:
She’s pretty, I’ll grant you, but if you scroll to the top photo of Peggy Senior, you can’t miss the difference in color. Peggy Junior’s fragrance is also a disappointment. She is sweet, but there is no cinnamon magic in her perfume. She smells like my pale pink single-flowered cultivar — nice, but not intoxicating.
Peggy Junior’s flowering branches don’t have the same visual impact in the landscape. The paler color of her flowers tends to disappear on gray winter days. Here’s a shot of her blooming branches so you can compare it to the previous one of Peggy Senior’s branches:
I spent some time trying to find a reason for this significant difference in what is supposed to be the same cultivar. I can’t find a reference anywhere that discusses variation in color and fragrance within the same cultivar of P. mume. Thus, I can only guess at why my Peggy Senior dominates my winter landscape with cinnamon scent and rosy color while my Peggy Junior (four years in our yard now) does not.
Guess One: Through an incredible stroke of good fortune, I got a unique specimen unlike all the other Peggy Clarke’s known to the horticulture industry.
Guess Two: As the popularity of flowering apricots among homeowners exploded, the horticulture industry cut corners to generate sufficient stock to keep up with demand. In so doing, cultivar characteristics were compromised.
I have no proof to back either hypothesis. But I am grateful that my obsession with extraordinary plants led me to acquire my original Peggy Clarke when she first appeared in the trade. Be assured that if I decide my landscape needs another Peggy Clarke, I’ll be rooting cuttings from Peggy Senior to ensure I retain this captivating cultivar that perfumes and brightens my winters.
What’s the old saying? Insanity is repeating the same act over and over and expecting different results? Or is that stupidity? Either way, on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont, my greatest exercise in futility is probably attempting to remove/control Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). Oh, how I despise this invasive exotic plant species. Let me count the ways.
1. It is ugly and covers everything. As you can see from the above photo, it grows tall and droops over everything, living and inanimate. Even when this annual grass dies with the frost, its straw-like dead remnants bury my landscape in destructive brown yuck. That’s a little pond that fluctuates with the level of the perched water table on my floodplain. I’ve surrounded it with myriad well-adapted wildflowers and native shrubs. But you’d never know it by that photo. It’s one of the areas that I didn’t weed this year. Now my pond environment pays the price.
2. It creates rodent habitat that thwarts predators. As these evil invaders create grassy hummocks over logs, shrubs, and small trees, they create excellent cover for field rats, deer mice, and voles. It’s a tunnel-filled grass metropolis in there. You’d think a rodent population boom would benefit my native predators, especially the Barred Owls and Red-Shouldered Hawks. Alas, no. The grass is so thick and covers so much territory that the rodents can largely conduct their business without ever coming into the open and risking capture.
3. It destroys/alters native plant communities. That’s the edge of my property on the floodplain in the above photo. The green area is where we stop mowing (we mow to reduce tick and snake issues). The hummocks of straw-like material are mounds of Japanese Stiltgrass, which are growing on an area that we used to mow before we figured out it wasn’t technically our land. Behind the Stiltgrass, you can see native floodplain vegetation still trying to fight the onslaught of the invader. It was there undisturbed before the Microstegium took hold. If our floods ever return, that vegetation will likely be overwhelmed.
That’s how the Microstegium got to our property — via floodwaters. Back in the pre-drought decades (how I miss them), our creek usually flooded spectacularly 5-8 times a year. As more and more developments sprouted up nearby, removing forest cover, Japanese Stiltgrass appeared in those developments (probably from seeds off bulldozers and other heavy equipment). This annual produces a lot of seeds, and one of their favorite modes of transport is water. Rainwater runoff carried seeds from those developments into my creek, where floods deposited them on my floodplain.
4. It has killed almost all the wildflowers and ferns that grew along my creek 15 years ago. As you can see in the above photo, the nasty stuff overwhelms everything. Delicate ferns and wildflowers don’t stand a chance.
5. Every object I introduce into my garden is a potential Microstegium support, even though that is never my intention. In the above photo, Japanese Stiltgrass climbs the deer fencing on my north side. I can’t mow right up against the fence because of the way it’s installed. Weedeaters don’t work there either. Hand-pulling is the only option. That’s back-breaking, knee-creaking work. And if you don’t do it before the grass sets seed in mid-summer, what you pull returns a hundred-fold anyway. Did I mention something about an exercise in futility?
6. It wastes enormous amounts of time that Wonder Spouse and I could be using for other things. That mountain is the result of last week’s clean-up of our deer-fence-enclosed north side. It’s about eight feet high and twelve feet wide, and is a mix of fallen branches, leaves, and Japanese Stiltgrass. In areas of our yard where the grass hasn’t invaded, we rake up the leaves, shred them, and use them for vegetable garden mulch. But the leaves in that pile were too heavily tangled with the Stiltgrass to recover. A close-up of the pile demonstrates the problem:
If there’s any good news there, it’s that Mount Brushmore is excellent winter habitat for a variety of birds, racoons, and possums. Air pockets created by piled branches are covered by the thick mass of grass and leaves, creating a thatched roof of sorts that repels rain and insulates against cold.
7-1000. Multiply the above reasons by the number of seeds one plant produces in a season. That’s right. One plant can produce up to 1000 seeds. Contemplating the math is not advised for gardeners with high blood pressure.
When I roamed North Carolina Piedmont woodlands and stream sides as a child and young adult, Japanese Stiltgrass was nowhere to be seen. This invader has transformed/destroyed Piedmont wetlands in just a few short decades.
The deer won’t eat it under any circumstances, but they do enjoy sleeping among the hummocks in winter — instant straw mattresses. I wouldn’t dream of trying to control it with herbicides — not on a wetland, and not with struggling native grasses still present.
One faint hope may be appearing. In Virginia, a fungus has been found to be infecting colonies of Microstegium. The grass seems to be severely impacted by this fungus, and scientists are studying it to determine its origin and whether it can be safely introduced elsewhere to control infestations of Microstegium. All my fingers and toes are crossed on that one. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to spend my winters raking dead Japanese Stiltgrass off of plants and structures in the hopes that next growing season I’ll be able to pull the nasty stuff before it sets seed. Oh, did I mention that seeds remain viable in the soil for many years? Yes, sometimes I do wonder why I try to garden at all.
They’ve been piling up for the last two months: seed catalogs – and plant nursery catalogs too. Their arrival usually signals the onset of my garden dream time – the frozen month or so during which I peruse the colorful pictures and descriptions contained in these myriad purveyors of temptation. However, this winter I’ve mostly been piling the catalogs in a corner for later reading while I take advantage of the continuing abnormal seasonal warmth to complete more yard and garden clean-up chores.
This past weekend, Wonder Spouse and I tackled our deer-fence-enclosed north slope. Mountains of evil Microstegium vimineum were raked up and hauled away, along with vast piles of tree limbs and tangles of Japanese Honeysuckle pulled from soft ground and off trees it was trying to strangle. Poison Ivy was gingerly dislodged from the base of a large Tulip Poplar. Leaves were raked and relocated around trees and shrubs – instant mulch. We were tired and sore but proud of our accomplishments after two days of hard work.
The catalogs continued to accumulate in their designated corner unread. I’d tell myself I’d get to them in the evenings, but found myself too tired to keep my eyes open after a long day of debris wrestling. Finally, during yesterday’s rain, I sat with the catalogs long enough to settle on my seed needs for the upcoming vegetable garden season. As is my usual practice, my choices combine old reliable favorites with a few new temptations that I feel obliged to try out in this year’s garden.
I always start with the tomatoes for two reasons. First, whole catalogs are devoted to them, so there’s more to study. Second, my greatest struggle every year is to limit myself to a sane number of varieties. My willpower is strongest when I begin my selections, so I settle on my tomato choices first.
Last season, I grew seven different varieties of tomatoes, as I described here. This year, I’ve managed to limit myself to six varieties. It was almost five, but a variety in my main seed source’s catalog was too interesting to resist. Here are this year’s selections:
- Early Goliath – We grew this one last year and were so pleased with its early and continuing productivity that we are growing it again.
- Big Beef – This variety continues to please with its enormous, flavorful slicers that begin to ripen about mid-season and continue through hard frost.
- Viva Italia – We find this roma-type paste tomato to be indispensible for sauces, and they’re meaty enough to hold up when thinly sliced onto pizzas.
- Sweet Treats – This cherry tomato is so perfect that we’ve decided we can’t survive a summer without it. Everyone who tastes one of these little treasures exclaims aloud with delight.
My experiments for this year are:
- Super Marzano – We loved the flavor of this roma-type variety’s ancestor, San Marzano, but it didn’t hold up against our southern Piedmont heat and diseases. This newer hybrid comes with much more disease resistance, and it’s supposed to be high in pectin, which means it will thicken pastes and sauces quickly and flavorfully. I’ll let you know.
- Indigo Rose – The picture in the catalog was so surprising that I read its description, which completely hooked me. It looks gorgeous – almost purple – and it supposedly is very high in anthocyanins, which are powerful anti-oxidants. Their good flavor is supposed to have “plummy overtones.” Color me intrigued.
I ordered all my tomato seeds except Indigo Rose from Totally Tomatoes. I’ve been ordering from these tomato/pepper specialists for many years, and I’ve never been disappointed. The rest of my vegetable and herb seeds come from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
After discussing the pros and cons of potential bean candidates, Wonder Spouse and I decided to stick with the bean varieties we grew last year: Jade bush beans and Fortex pole beans. Both were fantastically productive and delicious. We’re sticking with Red Ace beets; we know they grow well in our garden, and they always taste wonderfully sweet.
In addition to Nelson carrots, we’re going to try Laguna carrots, which are supposedly very heat-resistant. The idea of keeping carrots productive even midway through our summer swelters was too tempting to resist.
I went a little nuts on the lettuces. I always do. Suffice it to say that I focused on heat-resistant varieties, made sure to get some colorful red ones, and also threw in a mesclun mix for pizzazz.
I’m trying Sugar Sprint snap peas. They are theoretically stringless, unlike the Sugar Anns I’ve been growing. And I went with heat-resistant spinach varieties.
On the summer squash front, I’m growing Raven zucchini again; we’ve been pleased with their vigor. And we’re going to try Spineless Perfection. If this variety really lacks spines, I will indeed be delighted – assuming they produce well and taste good too. We’re trying a patty pan type called YStar that intrigued Wonder Spouse.
But we’re not doing winter squash again. We’ve decided we just don’t eat enough of them to justify the garden space needed to grow them. And we’re lucky enough to live in an area blessed with many small farmers and markets that offer tasty, locally grown winter squashes in abundance when we do have a craving.
We’re going to try Bright Lights swiss chard, and in addition to my culinary basil standards (Nufar and Aroma2), I’m going to grow Amethyst Improved, which is supposed to be deeply and reliably purple while tasting fabulous.
I don’t usually order annual flower seeds beyond Queen Sophia marigolds, which I consider essential to the vegetable garden. But this year, as a benefit of my membership in the Garden Writers Association, Renee’s Garden sent me a media kit that offers me free seeds if I’ll write about my results. Free seeds – say no more! I’ve ordered ten flower varieties, many of them heirlooms, which I’ve found are usually better at attracting pollinators than the fancy newer hybrids. I’ll let you know how they do as the season progresses.
As usual, I’ve ordered quite an ambitious number of seeds. As always, if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, I’m going to have a sad excuse for a garden. My county is in moderate drought right now. Every rain event promised seems to peter out just before it gets to my house. But my seed orders are in. I am placing my garden in the hands of the weather gods.
P.S. If you know any good rain dances, drop me a line…
No pretty pictures today, folks. But I do have a warning for those living in the Piedmont of North Carolina. I suspect this applies to the entire southeastern region of the US, thanks to the ridiculously mild weather that continues to dominate our region.
Here in NC, ticks and the diseases they carry are such a serious health concern that my state has a group devoted exclusively to this issue: the Tick-borne Infections Council of NC. My local chatlist just posted a warning from this group that I wanted to pass on to all you gardeners who are likely outside performing the same clean-up chores that I am tackling during this mild weather.
The bottom line for gardeners: Activate your standard tick-prevention measures:
- Tuck your pants into your socks.
- Spray Deet on your shoes and pants legs if you’re going to be in tall grass or heavy brush (and probably even when you’re in your garden).
- Meticulously check your clothes and your bodies when you return indoors. Wonder Spouse and I have found that lint rollers work very well for picking up tiny ticks that are hard for aging eyes to see. When you roll the roller over your clothes, the sticky tape picks up the ticks — so much easier than trying to spot them on your pants, especially if your clothes are dark colors.
- Don’t neglect your upper body either. Those evil suckers crawl mighty fast, especially when they’re tiny.
Note, please, that if you are bitten, these folks want you to save the tick. They need evidence, and so do you if you develop disease symptoms.
Here’s all you need to know from an expert:
Date: Wed, 4 Jan 2012 21:15:59 -0500
From: marcia e herman
Subject: Keep the tick please!
We (Tick-borne Infections Council of NC) have had reports of several people being bitten by “black-looking” ticks in the last few weeks. Please note:
1. These are likely the black-legged tick (used to be called deer tick) that carries Lyme disease and several other serious infections.
2. Adults of this species are active in the winter and have spread into NC over the last decade or so.
3. If you are bitten, watch for any rashes and/or flu-like symptoms for 30 days. Many people do not get a rash from an infection.
4. PLEASE KEEP THE TICK and let us know. This is important for yourself, in the event you become ill. It is helpful to show the tick to your doctor. Tick-borne Infections Council of NC needs to know about bites from these ticks. The conventional stance is that these ticks only rarely bite people in the south, and never in the winter. We need to see the ticks from any winter bites you may have to identify to tick and make a report to state public health. The easiest way to kill and keep the tick is to tape in on an index card. Note the date and place on your body. (You should do this in the summer as well with all ticks.)
Please notify us at firstname.lastname@example.org or the phone number below. Also, visit our website to learn the proper way to remove a tick and more. www.tic-nc.org
Lastly, become a member. There is no charge, though we do appreciate donations.
Please feel free to call with any questions. Thank you.
I promise my next post will be less creepy.