Archive for category Favorite Plants

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*

tomold1

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.

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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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Camphorweed: An interesting addition to my native landscape

Camphorweed

I only learned about Camphorweed (Pluchea odorata) a couple of years ago when one of the horticulturalists at the North Carolina Botanical Garden offered me a plant she had “edited out” of a walkway. The medicinal smell of the leaves intrigued me, and the just-expanding inflorescence looked interesting, so I took it home and planted it on the active floodplain beside the perennial creek that borders our property. It is not a knock-your-socks-off plant; it doesn’t have the wow-power of a blooming ironweed covered in butterflies or the landscape-dominating form of Joe-Pye Weed. But I like that about this plant. A landscape full of nothing but “glam-plants” is overwhelming to my eye, and the discovery of the understated beauty of a plant like Camphorweed delivers its own special magic.

This annual has other common names. Stinkweed, like the name Camphorweed, refers to the smell of the leaves. When bruised, they emit a distinctly medicinal odor, to my nose, not unlike the ointment my mother spread on my chest before bedtime when I was sick with a childhood cold. As you probably guessed, that pungency protects the plant from deer predation.

The other common name for this plant is Saltmarsh Fleabane, which refers to this annual’s tolerance of soil in or near brackish water, and the “fleabane” portion likely refers to the plant’s use as a deterrent for fleas and other pest insects. Although the plant prefers moist habitats, I have found it to be resilient in much drier soils than I expected, and it tolerates light conditions from shade to full sun.

I know all this because that one plant given to me bloomed prolifically and then set seed.  Individual flowers in the pink-lavender inflorescence morphed into fluffy light-brown-to-tan seeds that wafted all over my yard on autumn breezes. The following spring, I discovered Camphorweed plants popping up in a number of spots. On the floodplain, plants intermingled with a growing population of Cardinal Flowers, and in the wetter spots, Lizard-tails and Jewelweeds. But some seeds managed to float up the hill to my pollinator garden beds, where they bloomed as happily as they did on the floodplain.

In my yard, mature plants averaged heights between one and two feet. As you might expect, a plant with leaves that smell like medicine has been used that way by a number of cultures. Solutions using the leaves have been used as antiseptics; a tea of leaves and stems has been used to treat menstrual cramps, stomachaches, headaches, inflamed gums, and even to dispel “bad air” brought on via witchcraft. Recent studies show that compounds in the plant appear to disrupt cancer cell growth and may also speed up wound healing. As is true of all plant-based home remedies, you should always proceed with great caution when trying them out, because you can never know the concentration of curative compounds in a given plant. I can tell you from personal experience that simply crushing a leaf and inhaling the scent deeply is a great way to clear a stuffy nose.

Seeds of Pluchea odorata

I am delighted that this annual native has made itself at home in my landscape. It is not aggressive, and because it is an annual, simply removing/relocating it is all the control you need to exert to prevent overenthusiastic spreading. Most of the pollinators I saw on its flowers were tiny flies and a number of ants, but given the amount of fluffy seeds the plants produced this fall, the flowers were definitely being pollinated.

 

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Garden choices that serve Mother Earth

Female Monarch on swamp milkweed

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.

A recently emerged Cope’s Gray Treefrog resting on an Ironweed stem

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.

Juniper Hairstreak on Green-head Coneflower

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?

A recently molted Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Bronze Fennel — a non-native, non-invasive food source for this species.

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.

Caterpillars of Viceroy Butterfly enjoying leaves of a willow in the adjacent wetland

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.

Honey bee enjoying a native Purple Coneflower

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.

Southern Leopard frog enjoying our front water feature

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?

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native flowers, like this Joe Pye Weed, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

 

 

 

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Reliable Autumn Native Showstoppers

Enthusiastic berry display of volunteer deciduous holly

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.

Ripe Spicebush berries always make me think of ornaments on a Christmas tree as they contrast against the native’s 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.

Soon her leaves will drop, and this volunteer Ilex’s display will be even more spectacular.

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Celebrate the Unfolding

Ashe Magnolia bud

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.

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly eating a wetland willow tree.

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.

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly

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.

Fire Pink bud just 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!

Fire Pink almost fully open

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?

The “pink” in Fire Pink refers to the “pinked” (serrated) edges of its petals, not the color.

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.

An Ashe Magnolia’s floral beginning (bud) and ending (cone/fruit)

 

Ashe Magnolia blossom

 

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