Archive for category Favorite Plants

A Water Bird Summer

Great White Egret on the morning of August 16

As I walked down my front walk yesterday morning to visit the vegetable garden, I was stopped in my tracks by unexpected beauty. A small bluish warbler with a yellow throat and chest and a greenish back was frolicking in a front bird bath not more than five steps from me. It ignored me, finished its bath, then jumped to an adjacent shrub to preen. I was so gobsmacked by its delicate beauty that it didn’t occur to me to pull my phone from my pocket to attempt a photo. It was a Northern Parula. We see them in our lichen-abundant floodplain forest every year at least once or twice, but not this close, not so intimately. Though not a water bird, this warbler does prefer moister habitats, which is probably why it visits my yard. I imagine the absence of recent rain drove it to my bird bath.

Pileated woodpeckers are not water birds, but they do like wetland environments.

It hasn’t rained adequately in over a month. Trees are abandoning their summer green and dropping leaves early, conserving resources for another round of green next spring. Native flowers and shrubs wilt by day, pull themselves back together overnight, then wilt again when the sun hits them. I do not have enough water in my wells to begin to quench the thirst of all green ones that share my five acres with me.

Unlike many parts of the country, especially those states west of the Mississippi, my drought is quite recent, and if a few tropical systems come close enough to drop some rain (tis that season), odds are good that my land will head into winter in relatively good shape. Even if the rains don’t manifest, I am better off than many, thanks to the beaver-built wetland that has swallowed my creek, half of our floodplain, and much land on the other side.

Industrious beavers have built numerous dams – too many to easily count without getting very wet – on every side branch of the creek downstream, including a couple on our land. Until recently, their efforts were keeping the water level of the creek at record highs for this time of year – easily six or more feet in the deeper spots, and at least a foot in the shallow spots that in past years have been dry sand bars by this time.

Buttonbush flowers still blooming last week.

The perched water table on the floodplain was almost at ground surface level in many areas, making every water-loving native growing there very enthusiastic. Black willows (Salix nigra) have marched from the far side of the creek to our floodplain, covering at least an acre so far. I welcome them. The green ashes they grow beneath are dying quickly from the ravages of non-native, invasive Emerald Ash Borers. The willows will soon be the new dominant species, soaking up – I hope – some of the high water, their leaves and branches feeding deer and beavers, their flowers delighting abundant pollinators.

The big buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) I planted beside the creek 20 or so years ago has never been happier. It bloomed for two months, attracting all sorts of pollinators and the critters that eat them. Numerous seed balls are maturing – food for wood ducks and other seed-loving wildlife. Vegetation is now so high and thick – a combination of non-native invasive Japanese Stiltgrass and an array of native grasses, sedges, rushes, and water-loving shrubs – that I am not comfortable walking through them. I can’t see the ground and therefore can’t guess what might be lurking there. I must wait for winter cold to brown and shrink the growth before I can do any mud-tromping.

A closer view of a buttonbush inflorescence. The tiny tube-shaped flowers are visited by hummingbirds and butterflies.

That would frustrate me more if not for our wildlife cameras strategically placed along and beside the creek where native animals must fly, swim, and walk to go about their business. Those cameras provide a peephole into the beaver-built oasis. They show me how important this wetland has become to local wildlife, including species of water birds that we have never seen here until this year.

The Great Blue Herons have always been around. I love to watch their graceful stalking through shallow water, and it is eternally amazing to watch them catch and swallow fish. We have videos of them doing this in daylight, but my favorites are videos of their moonlit fishing efforts. This year, this species surprised us by building a nest high in a snag standing in the wetland – within view of our birding scope in the house! Herons generally nest in groups, building nests in wetlands together in spots called heronries. But our herons must have decided they were better off starting fresh here. We watched through the scope as they fed two long-necked chicks. Alas, we are fairly certain only one made it to adulthood. We’ve watched videos from the cameras of the juvenile heron learning to fish, often being displaced by an adult, with much raucous croaking from both birds.

A Green Heron hunting along the creek edge.

By mid-summer, we started seeing Green Herons in videos. They are smaller. Instead of wading out into the creek, they skulk along the edges seeking prey. Several times when I walked down to admire the buttonbush, I unintentionally startled a Green Heron. Each time, it flew up into a nearby tree and croaked at me until I left. I apologized for disturbing it, but I don’t think I was forgiven.

A Great Blue Heron watches as a Great White Egret beats it to a fish.

At about the same time the Green Heron appeared, we started seeing a large white bird flying through the trees of the wetland, but we never got a good look with the scope. Finally, it revealed itself via the wildlife cameras – a Great White Egret! This beautiful bird is about the same size as the Great Blue Herons, and they are not friends. We have one video of the egret catching a fish while a Great Blue Heron watches, then struts toward the egret. The egret flies away with breakfast, leaving the heron to stalk the shallows with its head pointed uncharacteristically beak-up, making a vertical line with its body. We couldn’t decide if it was attempting to look more menacing to the egret or if it was merely trying to watch for its return.

One of two juvenile White Ibises that spent several weeks along our creek.

The most astonishing species of water bird to show itself appeared on the cameras a few weeks ago. We were so befuddled by what we saw that we showed the videos to birder friends for their expert analysis. They confirmed that the pair of birds we saw on video dabbling in the mud were juvenile White Ibises! It was their motley plumage that confused us. Only their under parts were white. The birders confirmed that this species had been seen in our county this summer, but it is unusual for these coastal birds to be so far inland. We haven’t seen them lately, so we assume they’ve headed back to the coast.

It’s safe to assume we can thank the work of our resident beavers for the uptick in water birds this growing season. They are also the reason river otters live here, along with the many mammal species that favor this habitat: skunks, raccoons, opossums, deer, bobcats, coyotes, rabbits, mice, marsh rats – all have been caught at least once by our cameras, and we delight in watching them.

But this summer will always stand out as the Summer of the Water Birds. When the rains return – and I pray that’s soon – water levels should rise, perhaps encouraging these birds to return again in future years. I will continue to do all I can to create welcoming habitat for all the natives, and the cameras will be ready to record their stories.

Great White Egret dawn patrol

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Year’s End Walkabout

I spent an hour or so yesterday morning walking around our five acres with my camera to record the state of things as this year draws to a close. The weather here in central North Carolina has been alarmingly warm and we are struggling with moderate drought. However, a bit of rain fell the previous day, and gloom persisted yesterday as rain fell to our south. Winter, the forecasters say, will return on the second day of the new year, shocking plants, animals, and humans alike, I imagine.

Winter vegetable garden beds with row covers tucked beside them.

The warm spell has been a gift to our winter vegetable garden. In past years, I have kept them tented all winter beneath row covers to protect them from freezing temperatures. Severe cold will turn the greens and broccoli to mush, but beneath row covers, lows into the mid-20s for a few hours do the veggies no lasting harm. This latest warm spell has been so prolonged that I’ve been able to remove the row covers to give the veggies access to full sun. I even gave them all a dose of fish emulsion/seaweed mix this week. Winter fertilizing is not something I am usually able to manage, because I don’t want to expose them to prolonged cold.

Beauteous Emerald Crown broccoli

We harvested several heads of broccoli — I’m trying Emerald Crown this year — which we will be enjoying with tonight’s dinner. Broccoli doesn’t do well here as a spring crop anymore. The days warm up too quickly. But winter’s chill sweetens them as they grow beneath their row covers.  The row covers also protect them from cabbage moth caterpillar damage without the need for any pest control substances.

The greens are all doing great. I’m averaging one salad a week by picking individual leaves. Beet greens provide a bit of zip to the mix of lettuces and spinach. The warm spell accelerated the growth in this bed visibly. I may get two salads out of it next week.

Winter-blooming flowers — all but one non-native — are opening. Pink blooms of one flowering apricot were scenting the air yesterday. Today, the other one also began blooming. I look forward to the perfume from these flowers every year.

A stink bug — alive and well at the end of December!

January jasmine, which has no fragrance, is also beginning to open its bright yellow flowers that are often mistaken for forsythia. When I leaned in to photograph this flower, I was surprised to find it occupied.

Today, I noticed that my non-native Persian ironwood is beginning to bloom. This tree is in the witch hazel family, and the flowers are not showy, but I have observed honey bees visiting them.

My native witch hazel ‘Amethyst‘ has already begun to bloom. Typically, it waits until middle-to-late January. This shrub insists on holding on to its leaves, but it’s still quite lovely in bloom — and its fresh scent never fails to lift my spirits.

Most of the berry-producing shrubs in our yard have long been picked clean, but the red berries of native deciduous holly and the deep purple berries of native greenbriar vines were still visible when I walked around yesterday.

A few shrubs are still holding on to their autumn-colored leaves, including my  native oakleaf hydrangeas. I grow the smaller form, ‘Pee Wee,’ and I recently added a full-sized one, cultivar ‘Alice.’

Dried seed heads of cardinal flower and goldenrod also caught my eye, as did an ever-increasing abundance of bald cypress knees emerging from the muck where three trees I planted three decades ago have now attained heights between 40-50 feet.

Bared tree branches reveal their complex beauty during this leafless season. I was especially enthralled yesterday by a young winged elm. Its corky extrusions along its trunk and every branch made its silhouette quite striking.

Even during this time of moderate drought, the new channel that cuts through what was for 25 years dry, flat floodplain merrily chuckles its way toward a growing wetland pond, home to at least two dozen ducks. I have accepted the fact that this part of the floodplain is now a wetland. And, I must admit, the permanent streamlet that now traverses that area adds an air of tranquility to the landscape.

Never have I been more grateful for my lifelong passion for gardening and the natural world. I am certain the dirt perpetually beneath my fingernails is largely responsible for the retention of my sanity during these challenging times. I know that you, my readers, understand this. Here’s to a new year filled with fruits, vegetables, flowers, pollinators, and ever-dirty fingernails.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Virtual Opportunity to Learn More about Oaks

Northern Red Oak Acorns

Greetings, my fellow native plant lovers!

This post is to alert you to what sounds likely to be an excellent virtual presentation by experts on North American oak species, including how many of those species are declining and how we gardeners can help reverse that trend.

The Zoom presentation will be on Tuesday, November 9 from 7:00 – 8:30 p.m. EST.

For a small fee, tune in to learn much from the folks who know much.

For details, go here.

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Central NC Peeps: Native Plant Palooza Tomorrow and Saturday

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea.

For all native plant lovers/gardeners within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the annual fall plant sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden is in-person again this year — and this weekend!

I’ve been salivating over the list of available options for several weeks now. Give yourself a bit of time to meditate on your abundant options. When you look at the listing, be sure to click on the “Detail” link at the end of the row for a given plant. That link will take you to detailed information. If you scroll down a Detail page to a section labeled “HORTICULTURAL, Plant Sale Text,” you’ll find less botanically technical and highly useful information on a given plant’s growing requirements, along with other useful tidbits.

Cardinal Flower

I recommend that you scroll through the entire list once, noting any plant that tempts you. Then start winnowing down your list to what is practical for you. Consider where EXACTLY you will plant your new additions. Especially if you are considering some of the abundant trees and shrubs being offered, be sure to factor in the eventual size your adoptee will achieve. I hope you will consider woody additions if you have room, because now is the best time to plant these species, after summer drought and heat have abated, so plants can focus on maximizing root systems before summer stresses return.

Here in central NC, we just got a magnificent rain, so the earth is soft and ready for planting. Add to that the spectacular autumn crisp air we get to enjoy this weekend, and you’ve got ideal planting weather.

For first crack at the plants tomorrow, you must be a member of the NC Botanical Garden, which I hope you already are. But no worries, you can join at the door before you enter Native Plant Nirvana! The sale tomorrow for Members’ Night begins at 4:00 p.m. From past experience, I can tell you that the line of excited plant-lovers forms well before that time. Also, parking can be tricky, so carpool if you can — in a larger vehicle that can carry your new babies safely back to your home. Some of the woody plants can be fairly tall.

Lizard’s tail — a wonderful wildflower for shady, moist spots

I was planning to be there myself until a knee injury this week sidelined me. Crutches and big crowds of enthusiastic native plant lovers are not likely to mix well. Fortunately, a dear friend offered to pick up a few plants for me. In an immense display of will power, I limited my list to three new species that I want to add to my growing hilltop meadow. Thank you, Beth!

If Friday doesn’t fit your schedule, note that the sale continues on Saturday. That day, the sale is open to the public — no membership required. But members get a 10% discount on plant sales, and membership levels are available for all budgets and family sizes, so please consider supporting this wonderful organization with your membership.

One last tip — any wise old gardener (like me) will tell you that most plants are more visually appealing and more successful in the landscape if you plant multiples of the same species. Odd numbers often look most visually appealing — threes, fives — you get the idea.

Please take advantage of this weekend’s perfect fall weather to indulge in some botanical therapy. Local native wildlife will thank you — and so will your plant-loving soul. Have fun!

Columbine with native Rhododendron friend

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Spring Fever?

I ordered my seeds — well, most of them anyway — before Christmas. I sowed the first of them in the germination container in my greenhouse on January 21, because some plants require a longish period of growth before they are ready to bloom, or in the case of herbs, to reach a transplantable size. I blame pandemic isolation for the relatively large number of seeds I ordered this year. Also, Seeds ‘n Such, from which I ordered most of my seeds, charges a lower price per packet when you order more packets — a deal too tempting to ignore for this plant-lover. This company also provides fewer seeds per packet for most of their seeds, which allows them to reduce their per-packet cost, and limits the number of seeds that don’t get planted for lack of space.

The feeder for summer-visiting hummingbirds is just a few feet from where I hope to have a hanging basket of red petunias they will also enjoy.

Most years, I try a few new annual flower varieties. These non-native, showy summer blooms line a front walkway to my house, fill a hanging basket by the front door, and mingle with the vegetables to attract pollinators and provide fresh flowers for bouquets. For the hanging basket, I decided to try a petunia from the Hybrid Wave Series. You’ve probably seen these prolific bloomers in nursery centers. I could not resist trying a variety called Carmine Velour, which is described as being “stunning, non-fading, intense and bright, even when cloudy.” I’m hoping that the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit a feeder just across from the flower basket will approve of these deep red beauties. My packet only contained five pelleted petunia seeds, because this fancy hybrid is quite particular about its germination requirements. The instructions told me to allow a lot of time for germination and for the plants to grow to transplantable size. Finally today, 8 days after planting, one tiny seedling has emerged. Eight days isn’t really that long for a number of species to germinate, but because I’ve never tried this variety before, I confess I was getting a tad nervous. I’m hopeful that the other four seedlings will pop up any minute, especially because the next few days are supposed to be sunny, and these seeds require bright light to germinate well. I’ve got my fingers crossed that these prima donnas fulfill my expectations.

First to germinate for me was another new flower — a Gazania hybrid mix called New Day. These bright annuals should add some nice color to my front walk. They are purported to bloom well through summer heat and drought. Time will tell. Fourteen of the fifteen seeds in the packet germinated in 3-4 days. I approve of their enthusiasm!

I’m hoping creeping herbs like thymes and oregano will appreciate the heat of the rock wall that contains this flower bed.

I also decided to try growing some perennial herbs from seed. North Carolina summer humidity and heat are very hard on thymes and other Mediterranean herbs. I don’t usually manage to keep most of them alive for more than a couple of years. I rationalized that seeds are cheaper than plants, so I could try again. Plus, I’ve got a nice, hot, well-drained spot where the thyme, oregano, and marjoram can dangle over the rock border of the Furlough Wall of the bed Wonder Spouse built a few years ago. Tiny Sweet Marjoram and German Winter Thyme seedlings began popping up 5 days after planting. The flat-leaf parsley — a notoriously slow germinator — is still meditating on germination. The Cleopatra oregano is also still a no-show. Both could easily take another week or more before germinating, especially with the rounds of cold, wintry weather visiting my area every few days.

The almost-full moon last night before clouds obscured its rise above the trees.

Maybe it is tonight’s full moon. Perhaps it is the fact that the sun has begun to set later in the afternoon again, or that I heard the familiar shriek of a female Wood Duck earlier this week for the first time this year. Maybe it’s because my witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ is beginning to push out magenta petals and the Prunus mume trees are opening their first fragrant flowers, providing aroma therapy of the highest quality, but I have the distinct feeling that spring will arrive early this year. Just this week, the Northern Cardinals have begun singing. And for about a half hour on the one day this week that afternoon temperatures reached the upper 50s, a few Southern Chorus Frogs celebrated the break in the cold weather.

This morning’s “snow.”

OK, technically speaking, it snowed overnight last night, but it was such a pitiful effort that all evidence of it had disappeared by noon. And yes, the weather seers are threatening my area with freezing rain in a few days, but they are promising it will turn over to mere rain before the ice can create problems. It’s as if Winter’s heart just isn’t in the game anymore — at least not in central North Carolina where I live. I’ve lived in this state for all but the first year and a half of my life, and I’m old enough to remember March snows and springs that didn’t really begin until April. But climate change has erased those days for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s shortened duration, but I know the native wildlife that share our five acres would appreciate an early spring.

 

A hungry Red-shouldered hawk has taken to parking itself atop my bird feeders, no doubt hoping a songbird will walk into its talons. The white-tailed deer linger under the feeders at dusk vacuuming up any seeds dropped by the birds. The wildlife cameras are routinely capturing videos of a thin coyote patrolling deer trails along the creek. All would welcome Spring’s abundance I am sure.

For now, I must quell my spring fever, content myself with cheerleading new seedlings in my greenhouse, and appreciating winter sunrises on recently rare clear-skied mornings. Soon enough, the deep quiet of Winter will give way to Spring symphonies.

January 19 sunrise

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Staying Connected

Raindrops adorn an opening bud of Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars.’

I am a self-described crazy old plant lady. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not proud of it. It is simply who I am.

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ has been blooming for several weeks.

My connection to the Green World began when I was very small. That world has been my through-line, the ever-present song in my heart and story in my head that prevented me from tumbling down the dark well of despair more times than I can count or remember.

Male catkins of native hazelnut (Corylus Americana). The female flowers are not quite open yet.

I am grateful beyond words for the privilege of being able to live on the same piece of land for over 30 years. This is my forever happy place. Years ago when I worked a desk job in an airless office building, I stayed sane by mentally walking around my yard, admiring a current bloomer, or reminding myself that the tomatoes would need picking when I got home. Every bit of effort I have expended on my land has been returned in beauty and story a million-fold.

Leaves of Abelia chinensis are emerging six weeks ahead of their “normal” schedule.

I start most week days standing outside after Wonder Spouse drives off to his airless office. I listen and smell and watch for the current stories unfolding around me as an ever-increasing parade of vehicles zooms down our once-quiet country road. That traffic noise today was not enough to prevent me from hearing frogs chorusing in the adjacent wetland. Spring peeper songs have grown loud of late, thanks to absurdly warm nighttime and daytime temperatures. A small flock of cedar waxwings, their distinctive whistling calls revealing their presence in a large southern magnolia, flew off when I greeted them; their tight flock formations always remind me of schooling fish.

As I stood watching the waxwings, thousands upon thousands of seagulls that winter on a nearby reservoir flew overhead in ragged vee formations for over five minutes. They scavenge county dumps for food by day and shelter on the lake at night until their internal clocks tell them it is time to return to their coastal summer homes. Today, low clouds that will bring rain by noon – I can smell it in the air – caused the seagulls to fly low enough that I could actually hear them calling to each other, conjuring a memory of the smell and taste of the sea.

Nest holes of pileated woodpeckers.

The pair of pileated woodpeckers nesting in a sycamore just on the other side of my creek called to each other loudly. They are mostly quiet these days, but when it is time to trade places on the nest, the returning parent calls to the other; the nesting parent replies immediately, sounding to my story-prone mind impatient to go off duty. Woodpecker species are early nesters. They, like the pair of barred owls calling to each other every late afternoon, are supposed to be in reproductive mode in late winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk with chicks from a previous year.

Red-shouldered hawks are also early-season nesters. I’ve lately spotted the pair that shares our land with us often sitting in a tall walnut beside my house, and today I was showed why. I stayed out so long watching seagulls and listening to frogs that they grew impatient with me. One flew right over my head calling, I think perhaps as a diversion, because shortly thereafter its mate flew soundlessly overhead beyond the walnut to a small group of towering loblolly pines, a long thin branch dangling from its sharp beak – nesting material! Not long after, the hawk that spoke to me also flew overhead. It stopped briefly in the walnut, I think to see if I was watching. When I pretended to be interested in something else, it joined its mate.

This location will be a tough one to observe – lots of camouflage to obscure their activities. But once over a decade ago, a pair nested just across the creek in a winter-bare sweet gum. Our elevated back deck gave us a perfect vantage point until the trees leafed out, and Wonder Spouse got some lovely photos of still-fuzzy nestlings as they began to move about and stretch their wings.

Strong, possibly dangerous storms are predicted for tomorrow, along with multiple inches of heavy rain. I thus decided to take advantage of this last bit of quiet before the storms to walk around the yard this morning with my camera. As is true for all of my region, many flowers are blooming weeks ahead of schedule. This early in February, a killing freeze is almost inevitable.

So today I walk, inhaling moisture-laden air perfumed by the fragrance of precocious flowers, grateful for my connection to this land and the time I have to appreciate it.

The rains begin…

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Before Winter Finally Arrived

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’

Winter cold finally arrived in my area about three days ago — highs in the upper 30s-low 40s, lows in the low 20s, and a wind chill that hurt skin accustomed to the weather of the previous four weeks, when nighttime temperatures rarely dropped into the upper 30s, and daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and low 70s. During the 60+ years I’ve lived in North Carolina, an occasional winter warm weather interlude has not been unusual, but I can’t recall an entire month of such weather from mid-December to mid-January.

Such a prolonged warm spell caused many plants in my yard to break dormancy far earlier than normal — by at least six weeks. Many birds began displaying signs of territorial behavior as mating instincts awakened. Bluebirds burbled to each other as they discussed the merits of nesting box options. Insects were everywhere, as were the frogs, snakes, and lizards that eat them. It all felt very wrong.

A honeybee enjoys another Prunus mume cultivar (name forgotten)

The day before winter cold finally arrived here, I walked around the yard and took a few photos. Now that ice covers the abundant shallow water in channels on the floodplain, I suspect my late winter bloomers that opened four weeks early are probably now brown. I haven’t looked yet; that wind chill is mean. To remind myself of their loveliness, I include a few shots here, along with photos more typical of winter vegetation.

In “normal” winters, the Prunus mume trees dole out their flowers sparingly, a few dozen each time the weather warms a bit. This year’s prolonged warm winter weather caused almost all buds to open simultaneously.

January jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) usually starts blooming in February, a few blooms at a time until March approaches. Many folks confuse them with forsythia, but a close examination makes the differences abundantly clear.

A native late winter bloomer, Hamamelis vernalis, is usually only showing a few petals by now. But the warmth caused the cultivar I grow to open more fully, scenting the air with a light, clean perfume that I always associate with spring cleaning.

Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’

An array of winter buds, remnant leaves, and bright moss lush from winter rains also caught my eye.

Late on the afternoon I took these shots, I was on my back deck when I noticed an insect on a window. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized it was a Green Lacewing adult, much smaller than the ones I routinely see in my garden during the growing season. It saddened me to know that this delicate-looking beneficial insect would certainly perish soon. If the freeze didn’t kill it, the absence of food certainly would.

What a short, strange winter it has been.

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A Most Welcome Visitor: Juniper Hairstreak

Juniper Hairstreak enjoying Swamp Milkweed

In my region of central North Carolina, it has been a very sparse year for butterflies and moths. The local lepidopterists (folks who study this group of insects) suspect that an especially severely cold winter followed by a wet early spring may be responsible for the dearth of this insect group. This is not just bad news for those of us who enjoy watching colorful butterflies drift in clouds from flower to flower. It is very bad news for the ecosystem, because myriad species of animals — most especially nesting birds — rely exclusively on the larvae of this group (caterpillars) to feed their young. Caterpillars are the perfect baby bird food — packed with protein and other key ingredients that insure that chicks grow quickly to fledgling stage, where they become less vulnerable to predators. In fact, caterpillars are the only food parent birds of familiar species such as Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren can use; their chicks require the specific nutrients in those proportions to grow and fledge.

The well-known classic, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson warned the world about what happens when insects disappear from ecosystems. The banning of DDT saved our birds that time. A more recent classic, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy, details specifically which species of insect rely on which species of native plants. The list is long and alarming — at least to me — because many species of insects rely exclusively on only one species of plant to feed their larvae. If that plant species is unavailable, the insects that rely on it cannot complete their life cycles. If the host plant species becomes widely unavailable (as species of Ash trees are becoming now, due to devastation by the non-native Emerald Ash Borer), insects that rely on those species will disappear.

This head-on view of a Juniper Hairstreak illustrates the “hairs” for which it is named.

I was delighted to spot this fresh-looking Juniper Hairstreak dining on Swamp Milkweed in my pollinator garden yesterday. This small butterfly is often overlooked, because of its soft green color, but it is relatively common in the Piedmont region of North Carolina because its larval food plant — Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also relatively common. On my five acres, we are lucky to have a number of 40-foot mature specimens. They provide shelter for birds and other creatures, their bluish “berries” (actually cones) are beloved by Cedar Waxwings and other birds, and their sturdy shade and deep green color make this evergreen species well-suited for any landscape. If sited where air flow can stagnate, a colorful fungus that uses this species as an alternate host can appear, but I solved this issue in my yard simply by limbing up the trees to permit better air circulation.

References tell me that male Juniper Hairstreaks linger on branch tips of their host tree until a female is attracted. Females lay single eggs on the tips of branches, which eventually hatch to become very well-camouflaged caterpillars similar to the one in this link.  I’ve never seen one on my trees, but then again, I’ve never gone looking for them either.

But the presence of this fresh-looking specimen on my Swamp Milkweed yesterday tells me that my Red Cedars have been playing host to green caterpillars that have likely been helping to feed the three broods of Eastern Bluebirds reared by the ambitious parents that nested on my property this year.

In a world so filled with darkness these days, the appearance of this petite green butterfly gives me at least small hope for my planet’s future.

Long may you and your kind reign, little one.

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Summer Solstice Anticipation*

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One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?

Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!

Yesterday's harvest.

Yesterday’s harvest.

But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?

All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.

I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.

Embracing Tomatoes

There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control —
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.

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Just yesterday,
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages —
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.

Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways —
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.

tom1

So here I am once again —
embracing tomatoes.
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.

Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.

tom3

Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.

Coming soon, we hope!

Coming soon, we hope!

Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.

* I hope you enjoyed this repeat of a post from 2013.

 

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Early June in the Garden

 

Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) always looks like it’s wearing a party hat when in bloom.

I always carry my camera with me when I step outside this time of year, even if I’m just walking the 100 yards to the mailbox. If I don’t bring it, some butterfly, bee, bunny, or bird does something photo-worthy that I don’t catch if I’m unprepared. These shots are what I caught today.

I spent the morning working in the vegetable garden. I needed to work longer, but the sun is ferocious, the humidity unforgiving. Yesterday, I finally harvested our first squash and first two eggplants. We ate them last night and I can report that they were delicious. Today, I picked another eggplant, decided to give a couple of squash one more day to fill out, exhorted the tomato plants bent low with the weight of green orbs to hurry up and ripen, and rejoiced in sighting the first bean flowers on all three varieties I’m growing. A little photographic documentation follows. To enlarge a photo and see its caption more easily, click on it.

To get to the vegetable garden, I travel through the front yard and pollinator gardens. Here’s a sample of what I saw today.

In the center of my front yard, the Chinese Pearl-bloom tree commands full attention as it nears peak bloom.

Chinese Pearl-bloom tree (Poliothyrsis sinensis)

We especially enjoy this time of year because of the near-daily emergence of tiny new amphibians from the front water feature. A few days ago in the early morning after a night-time shower, Wonder Spouse and I counted 25 hiding on various plants growing nearby. I suspect that most are Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but I’ve heard other amphibians singing lustily beside the pond at night too, especially Narrow-mouthed Toads. When they are this tiny, though, I have no idea how to tell them apart.

Every day brings new discoveries, fresh food, and hard work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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