Archive for category Favorite Plants
Last year, with help from some young folks with strong backs and arms, Wonder Spouse and I removed the overgrown loropetalums that had overwhelmed our front garden, and replaced them with a pollinator garden consisting almost entirely of native perennials. For a first-year garden, I think it turned out rather well aesthetically, but that is not why I felt compelled to transform an area that many folks would probably have considered to be perfectly fine.
My part of the southeastern US piedmont region is growing exponentially. Like so much of the southeastern US, this is resulting in suburban sprawl. Beautiful, healthy forests and fields are erased nearly daily, replaced by another strip mall with a gas station and fast food joint or another housing development filled with nearly identical new houses with stretches of non-native lawn and a couple of landscaper-standard foundation plantings.
I can see and feel the difference on my five acres of green chaos, where Wonder Spouse and I have lived and gardened since 1989. We are losing the battle with invasive exotic species, because our land is rapidly becoming an island of green in a sea of asphalt and concrete. We are under assault from all sides. Native wildlife is affected most dramatically. Habitats used for generations are obliterated overnight by bulldozers. It is especially brutal to watch the suffering during the spring and summer, when nests, dens, and families are destroyed in the name of human progress on what seems to be a daily basis.
In light of daily devastation of the wild lands that once surrounded me, I look at my landscape choices with new eyes now. Every choice I make is an answer to one question: How will this serve the native environment?
Many of what I think of as my “plant pals” — ecologists, botanists, avid gardeners, birders, lepidopterists, and others deeply attached to the value and beauty of all members of native ecosystems — are increasingly discouraged. Some have confided that they are going through the motions at this point, continuing to try to demonstrate and educate the millions of humans who are unaware of the consequences of their choices on the continuing viability of our planet, while in their hearts believing that the battle is already lost. I confess I have moments where I feel similarly, but then I see another miracle unfold on a flower or tree in my yard, and my spine straightens. I feel obliged to carry on the crusade. It feels to me to be the very least I can do.
The folks who read my little blog and/or follow me on Facebook are I am certain already aware of how close to the tipping point of ecological disaster humanity is teetering. We can’t control the choices of others, but we can control ours. That’s why those biologically inert loropetalums in my front yard are gone, replaced by an increasingly vibrant patch of wildflowers that has already attracted more species of butterflies, native and honey bees, parasitic wasps, praying mantises and other beneficial insects, not to mention insect-loving warblers and other birds than I have ever observed before so close to my front door.
I built it (with lots of help), and they have come, more with every passing year. My five acres is a sanctuary now, a haven for as many displaced native species as it can handle.
Even a tiny yard can be a sanctuary. During winter’s quiet, ask yourself what kind of beautiful, vibrant native sanctuary can you create by eradicating your biologically sterile, poison-filled, water-wasting non-native lawn with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers? Before every new landscaping decision, ask yourself, “How will this serve the native environment?”
Decades ago, Wonder Spouse and I planted two species of native deciduous holly on our floodplain — a location where all have flourished. These wonderful natives consistently produce abundant quantities of berries that are usually eaten by local birds and passing flocks of Cedar Waxwings by some time in January — sooner if winter weather is more severe. I think the berries probably don’t taste as good as, say, those of native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin), which vanish in late summer as soon as they ripen into scarlet beads that contrast with vibrantly green leaves.
Both spicebushes and hollies are dioecious, which is a fancy term used by botanists that means the flowers of each sex occur on different plants. Thus, if you want your female plants to produce lots of showy berries, you must ensure that a male of the same species is nearby, so that pollen from flowers on male shrubs is deposited by visiting pollinators onto the flowers of female shrubs. I am fortunate to have a neighbor who keeps honeybees, so in addition to the many native pollinators that visit my blooming plants, in spring when the hollies bloom, they are also covered by busy swarms of honeybees from dawn to dusk, thereby ensuring abundant fruit set.
The two species of native holly that I grow are Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Possumhaw (Ilex decidua). The latter species is not to be confused with another native shrub often called Possumhaw — Viburnum prunifolium — which is why I always try to insert a plant’s Latin botanical name in my posts. Both holly species can grow to heights of 15-20 feet at maturity, maybe even a bit taller. They both tolerate flooding, routinely moist soils, and even dry soils; they are tough native shrubs. I think Winterberry usually grows taller than Possumhaw, but on my rich alluvial soils, both species have achieved significant sizes. When I planted them, I had imagined shrubs wide at the base continuing to the top, but deer consistently ate the lower branches after we removed the wire cages that protected them during their first few years of growth. Thus, my floodplain hollies look like trees, with trunk bases devoid of branches. Either form is aesthetically pleasing to my eyes.
Every year as the canopy trees on my floodplain discard their autumn foliage, the deciduous hollies growing beneath them take center stage. During early autumn, their red berries mingle with the still-green leaves of the shrubs. But by late November, those leaves have fallen, revealing branches adorned by bright red clusters of berries. I think the visual effect is wonderful. Naked branches permit longer views of my floodplain, creek, and adjacent wetland, while the red berries provide bright pops of continuing color — and, eventually, food for winter-hungry birds.
I am delighted by the diverse number of native birds that visit our five acres of green chaos, and their presence has yielded continuing surprises. One of those is bird-deposited volunteer plants. Seeds are designed to survive travel through birds’ digestive systems; some even require it for germination. In my yard, I discover all sorts of “bird-planted” species growing beneath large trees — often evergreens — where the birds shelter at night and during rough weather. Such areas are prime locations for the appearance of non-native invasive exotic species, such as Asian Bittersweet, Mahonia, and several species of Ligustrum and Elaeagnus.
But those locations also yield volunteers of native plants, likely from fruits eaten off of plants in my yard. Thus, I now have an abundance of spicebush growing on my property; there were none until I planted three over twenty years ago. I’m also starting to see quite a few native Beautyberries now. The biggest volunteer surprise, however, was the appearance of two bird-planted deciduous hollies at the top of our hill just outside the fence that protects our vegetable garden from marauding deer. The two shrubs are growing quite close to each other, their branches intertwining. And most wonderful of all, one is male, and the other is female. I was so stunned when I realized the identity of these plants that I decided to leave them where they appeared. Now, a few years later, they are about 12 feet tall, and the female is so laden with ripe red berries right now that everyone who encounters her gasps in surprised delight.
I suspect her fruit set is especially impressive for two reasons. First, her branches are intertwined with those of the adjacent male plant, so proximity to pollen is maximized. On top of that, my neighbor’s bee hives are less than 100 feet from these plants. These shrubs literally buzz with honeybee activity when they are blooming.
I suspect these volunteers are Winterberries, but I have not tried to verify this. Frankly, I don’t care. I know they are native, beautiful, and beloved by birds — especially a Mockingbird that defends the female shrub against all comers as soon as the berries begin to show color. Every morning, he perches on one of the top branches of the berry-adorned female shrub and demonstrates the versatility of his vocal repertoire for all to hear. He tolerates my proximity as I work in the vegetable garden — as long as I am careful to greet him with respect and avoid lingering too long in front of his winter pantry. It’s a mutually agreeable arrangement.
I have been watching the natural world closely since I was around three years old. My earliest memories involve skinks and chipmunks (at different times) that I watched for hours as they conducted their lives in my yard. I planted my first wildflower garden when I was ten, grew my first tomatoes around age fourteen, and gloried in my first full-fledged vegetable garden at age twenty-three. I’ve grown a vegetable garden every year since then, and as soon as Wonder Spouse and I bought our first house, we’ve also been adding as many native plants as we could.
With more than five decades of gardening experience behind me, you would think I would have cultivated more patience. But every year, I find myself wondering if the shiny green globes on the tomato plants will ever morph into red juicy delights, if the bean vines scaling the top of their trellis will ever produce the long green flavorful pods we adore, and if the expanding buds of my native perennials will ever open so the pollinator party can get fully underway.
I found myself doing it again earlier this week. I was standing in front of the purple milkweeds in the pollinator garden exhorting them to hurry up and open. They still haven’t, by the way, but at least I can now see hints of color in some of the buds. I added Fire Pinks (Silene virginica) to that garden last fall. In the last few weeks, they’ve been sending up many flower stalks laden with promising buds. But the recent cool, cloudy spell of weather put them into suspended animation. Finally, just yesterday, a single flower on one of the plants managed to open. It took it all day, but late-afternoon sun finally coaxed this single crimson flower into fully opening.
I confess I visited this flower several times during the day, photographing it at every stage of its unfolding. That’s when a little epiphany went off in my brain – Nature unfolds at its own pace. Impatience is a human weakness, not a failing of the flower. The point, I belatedly realized, is to celebrate the unfolding, observe and appreciate every moment of the lives around me – and my own!
I know – duh, right? Like most folks, I juggle a fair number of projects, interact with a number of different people, and it is very easy for me to get lost in the machinery of my brain as it attempts to find a way to finish everything on my infinite to-do list. Duh, again – infinite to-do list? Who am I kidding?
From this point forward, I am going to do my best to stay in the moment as often as I can. Instead of tapping my toes impatiently at tightly closed flower buds, I will breathe deeply beside them and try to tune into the tempo of their lives. I will try to relish every stage of Nature’s unfolding, chill out my runaway-freight-train brain, and seek peace in every beautiful moment of every day.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.
We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.
They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.
My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.
Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.
Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.
Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.
This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.
Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?
All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role of the natural world they so blithely ignore.
I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine. Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.
Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.
I know the folks in the Northeast are cold, snow-plagued, and miserable. I know the folks in the Pacific Northwest who prayed for rain for most of a decade are desperately looking for the emergency shut-off valve to Heaven. And I’m sorry for your troubles, truly I am, which is why I feel a tad guilty complaining about the temperatures dominating the southeastern Piedmont region of the US.
Sure, it got down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit at my house this morning. I had to remove ice from the bird baths. But according to the forecasts, I probably won’t need to do that again for at least ten days. And the way things are going, maybe not until next November. My neck of the woods is hurtling full-tilt-willy-nilly into spring.
We’ve already zoomed through crocus season, the snowdrops opened yesterday and will likely be done in a few days. I planted a variety of daffodils that are supposed to provide me with an extended seasonal bloom period, but I’m starting to think that may not happen this year.
I started seeds of greens for my spring garden during the first few days of February; at the time, I wondered if I was overeager. Now I’m exhorting the seedlings to grow faster, fearing that if I don’t get them transplanted into their garden bed soon, summer temperatures arriving by early April will melt them before we’ve harvested more than a salad’s worth. This. Is. Not. Good.
I posted the above shot to my Facebook page the other day, and someone there asked me to list the varieties I’m growing, because she couldn’t read the scrawls on the labels in the photo. So for her — and anyone else who might be interested — here are the spring salad varieties growing in my greenhouse right now.
- Coastal Star — This is my go-to green romaine lettuce. It stands up to the early heat that hits my area in late April/early May. This is the third year I’m growing it.
- Outredgeous — I grew this red romaine for the first time last season, and we loved it. It faded in the heat a little faster, but it stayed alive and productive this whole past winter for me beneath a row cover. I love this lettuce.
- Cherokee — This is a red summer crisp lettuce that I’m trying for the first time, because Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the source of most of my veggie seeds) says it is more heat-tolerant (i.e., bolt-resistant) than most.
- Ovation Greens Mix — I’ve grown this mix several years now. I get a nice assortment of fast-germinating speciality greens that give a nice tang or slightly bitter note to sweeter lettuces. They bolt very quickly in my heat. I direct-sow a few more when I transplant the starts in my greenhouse; sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
- Seaside Spinach — This is a new smooth-leaf variety I’m trying this year, because it is touted as being bolt-resistant. I often have trouble persuading spinach to germinate for me in the greenhouse, but this variety is popping up and growing with enthusiasm — a promising start.
- Rosaine — I grew this red bibb lettuce for the first time last year. It produces really lovely thick, buttery leaves. It is supposed to be bolt-resistant, but did not impress me last season. However, like Outredgeous, it produced all winter for me under a row cover. I’m thinking red lettuces may be more cold-tolerant.
- Corvair Spinach — If Seaside remains as enthusiastic as it is starting, I won’t be growing Corvair again. This smooth-leaf variety is a downright temperamental germinator for me — and most everything germinates for me, so this is unusual. The plants that do show up, grow well enough, but I would rather grow a spinach that I can always count on.
- Sparx — This is a new green romaine I decided to try, because it is supposed to be heat-tolerant and high-yielding. It is back-ordered until March 1. At the time I ordered, I figured this would not be a deal-breaker, timing-wise. The crazy weather may preclude a proper test of this variety, but I’ll give it a try when it shows up.
That’s it for the greens. Believe it or not, I really tried to keep down the number of varieties I’m trying this year. I also tried to contain myself when it came to tomato varieties, but I compensated with a new pepper variety, and an eggplant that intrigued me. Seed catalogs in deep winter are very, very hard to resist.
The absurd warmth caused my flowering apricots to zip through their bloom cycles much more quickly than usual. Only Peggy Clarke Senior is still perfuming the air, albeit faintly, with the magical cinnamon-sweet scent of her rosy blooms.
Our Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ has opened flowers at the top of the tree. The forecasted heat this weekend will no doubt cause most of the rest to explode into bloom.
Both of my Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are in full bloom. I’m hoping the warmth will encourage pollinators to cross-pollinate them to produce fruits this year.
This member of the dogwood family doesn’t naturally occur in North America, but it doesn’t seem to be invasive, so I decided to give it a try. If I start seeing seedlings popping up, I will yank it out pronto.
My patch of Golden Ragwort grows larger every year. It does a great job of reducing erosion, and when it blooms, its bright yellow flowers make the ground glow.
The weekend is supposed to reach high temperatures in the mid-70s here, so Wonder Spouse and I will be outside preparing spring vegetable beds and hauling fallen branches knocked down by winter storm winds. I anticipate plenty of sore muscles and creaky joints. But it’s all worth it when we sit down to the first salad of the season.
I’ll leave you with one last photo. I posted this to my Facebook page, but I wanted to share it here for my non-Facebook followers. On February 10, we enjoyed a penumbral lunar eclipse. Just the left edge of the full moon in the photo below was obscured by the sun’s shadow, but it was discernible. The Amazing Wonder Spouse set up his tripod and took this shot. Enjoy!
Tomorrow, we’ll be done with January. For me, this has been simultaneously a very long and a very short month. I have been doing more writing for other venues this month, which has diverted me from efforts here. Despite the schedule uptick, I have found time to wander my yard long enough to photograph the new growing season’s opening acts. Natives like the witch hazel cultivar above are among the early bloomers, but the showier acts are mostly non-native ornamental trees and shrubs that I added precisely because of their early-flowering proclivities. More than ever, I am merciless in eradicating any non-natives that show signs of potential invasiveness, but the plants in this post have been with me for over a decade, and so far, so good.
I first met January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) on the campus of Duke University, where its arching evergreen branches cascaded down a rock wall, its winter flowers a welcome surprise on a dull gray day. I never forgot it, and when we moved to our five-acre paradise, I found a spot for it in the first few years.
From a distance, the botanically unsophisticated mistake this beauty for forsythia. But forsythia is a much coarser, larger plant, and it usually blooms at least a month later than January Jasmine.
Before the January Jasmine got started, my pale pink-flowering Flowering Apricot (Prunus mume) opened for business. During a recent warm spell, it was covered in ecstatic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive.
A week later, my other two Flowering Apricots opened. Theoretically, both are the cultivar Peggy Clarke, but as I wrote here, the flowers are not the same, regardless of the name tags that came with them. As I wrote then, I think of them as Peggy Senior and Peggy Junior, because I acquired Junior later, after falling madly in love with the fragrance of Peggy Senior. I know my enthusiasm sounds extravagant, but trust me, on a cold — or warm — winter’s day no matter how blue you might be feeling, a few deep inhalations of Peggy Senior’s cinnamon-sweet perfume will lift your heart and hopes.
Peggy Senior is sited behind the south-facing wall of our garage, so she always begins to bloom about a week before Peggy Junior. For comparison, here are a couple of shots of Junior. The differences in their perfume are profound; although pleasantly sweet, Junior’s fragrance entirely lacks the cinnamon undertone that makes Senior so heavenly. Junior’s flowers are also a paler pink.
The Green World is my source of solace these days more than ever before. When faced with national and international events over which I have little control — at least until the next election cycle — I have chosen to devote my efforts to where I feel I can be most effective. That’s why I’m stepping up my writing efforts.
I’m writing a bi-monthly gardening column for a small paper in Virginia in the hopes that I can persuade new readers to more deeply appreciate their native environments. I also recently finished an article for the next edition of Conservation Gardener, the magazine of the NC Botanical Garden that I’m hoping will motivate folks to get serious about eradicating invasive non-native species from urban natural areas in their neighborhoods.
I’m also deeply involved in helping a local church create a wildlife sanctuary on their property by enhancing it with diverse, abundant native plants. My dream is that all such public places — now mostly “landscaped” with resource-hogging, environmentally sterile lawns and a few struggling, mostly non-native trees and shrubs — can become healthy native havens for struggling wildlife, including vital pollinators. I’m hoping this project will inspire other churches to start their own native sanctuaries, and that as adults and children become familiar with these plants, they will want to plant them in their home landscapes. It’s a big dream, I know, but with so much darkness in our world right now, I feel obliged to think big — and very green.
A couple of weeks ago before dawn, we got quite a show just as the moon began to make her descent. The bright light below and to the moon’s right is the planet Jupiter, shining brighter than most stars. If you look carefully toward the bottom of the shot, you can see a blurry bit of gray light. That’s Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.
This conformation of heavenly lights was a lovely opening act for the sunrise that followed shortly thereafter, and reminded me that there’s more than one meaning to that term. Opening acts can be preludes to main shows, but they can also be behaviors. In this time when political darkness threatens to overwhelm us, I am looking to my early flowers and spectacular sunrises as reminders to keep my heart open despite the palpable fear in the air.
The only way to fight darkness is with light, and light comes from loving, open hearts. So I resolve to do my best to keep my heart open through the dark days ahead, drawing strength from the Green World, and praying that sharing it as widely as I can will inspire others to do the same.
We knew rains — significant rains — were promised for New Year’s Day, so Wonder Spouse and I took advantage of a mild New Year’s Eve Day to wander about our five acres. Mostly, we saw what we expected to see, but as always, there were a few surprises.
Our area hasn’t seen significant rain for over two months, and we’ve been labeled “abnormally dry” by the experts who monitor such things. Usually when this is the case, our floodplain dries out, the mud disappears, and the creek level drops to a trickle. But this hasn’t happened this time. Previous such episodes have taught us to suspect beavers.
As New Year’s Eve Day dawned, I realized I was seeing much more water than normal reflecting light on the floodplain opposite our side of the creek. It’s a tad hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but this is what I saw.
We pulled on our boots after the light grew stronger and got as close as we could to what turned out to be a growing beaver pond.
When I got in and looked at this next picture, I spotted a suspicious-looking structure on the right side.
I’m fairly certain that’s a beaver lodge in the middle of the pond on the right. Here’s a zoomed-in view.
The beavers are well on their way to creating a very large pond on our neighbor’s side of the creek. And today they got a lot of help — about 1.5 inches of rain, with a similar amount predicted for tomorrow. As night fell, our creek had reached the top of its banks. Even though the rain had stopped several hours earlier, the water was barely moving, thanks to the beaver dam downstream. More rain will certainly cause the creek to spill out onto our side of the floodplain — for how long remains to be seen.
It will be an interesting late winter and spring, if the pond is permitted to remain. The influx of waterfowl could be wonderful, and the last time the beavers did this, a few river otters moved in to enjoy the increase in fish and other aquatic life.
If 2016 taught me anything, it is that life is entirely unpredictable. It’s best, I think, to seek beauty anywhere I can, to savor it, celebrate it, and pray it wins out in the end. With that in mind, here are a few final beauty shots also taken this day.