Posts Tagged Hearts-a-burstin’

Welcome, Autumn!

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Summer left as sweetly as she arrived this year, bringing needed rain overnight. We woke to sunshine, deep blue, cloudless skies, and a steady breeze bringing in cool, dry, autumnal air. If only every summer could be as kind as this one was to us. Oh, she wasn’t perfect. Her excessive June rains put fungal diseases into overdrive. My tomatoes were blighted beyond redemption by late July.

But the peppers remain productive. My sweet Italian Bull’s Horn variety, Carmen, is overwhelming us with scarlet fruits.

Carmens remain productive.

Carmens remain productive.

And the one purple cayenne plant I added (free seed — who can resist?) is still producing zillions of fruits. They start out deep purple, then pale to lilac, then suddenly go deep, hot scarlet.

First, the cayennes are purple.

First, the cayennes are purple.

Then, they go hot!

Then, they go hot!

The vegetable garden is mostly flowers now. The nasturtiums went bonkers, thanks to Summer’s rains. They now own two full rows where the beans and tomatoes once grew.

Never have the nasturtiums displayed such prolonged enthusiasm.

Never have the nasturtiums displayed such prolonged enthusiasm.

And they’ll be popping up everywhere next year without any help from me. Their fat, curly seed pods are verging on ubiquitous.

Clearly, the nasturtiums have plans for next year.

Clearly, the nasturtiums have plans for next year.

Reproductive efforts were evident everywhere in my yard today, as I took my Farewell-to-Summer stroll around the yard this morning. Some plants are just now showing off ripe fruits.

Cornus florida berries won't last long; my pileated woodpeckers adore them.

Cornus florida berries won’t last long; my pileated woodpeckers adore them.

Beauty berry always lives up to her name about now.

Beautyberry always lives up to her name about now.

Viburnum prunifolium fruits go pink, then deep purple, but you don't see many purples, thanks to hungry birds.

Viburnum nudum fruits go pink, then deep purple, but you don’t see many purples, thanks to hungry birds.

Hearts-a-bursting is exploding with strawberry-like fruits.

Hearts-a-burstin’ is exploding with strawberry-like fruits.

Some plants only produced a few fruits this year. I think the rains actually inhibited pollination in a few instances. Case in point: my native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin). They produced few berries, and as soon as those ripened, they were devoured. I found one lone exception today, hiding deep inside the center of a plant whose leaves are just beginning to turn their characteristic autumn gold.

One lonely spicebush berry hidden deep within the shrub.

One lonely spicebush berry hidden deep within the shrub.

Most of my holly species are heavy with unripe berries, but one is already showing off. A deciduous species, Ilex verticillata, is loaded with crimson fruits. In another month, its leaves will drop, but the berries will likely linger well into late fall, even January some years. The fruits are usually a meal-of-last-resort for the feathered inhabitants of my yard.

Ilex verticillata berries ornament a still-green shrub.

Ilex verticillata berries ornament a still-green shrub.

Fruits of my deciduous Asian dogwood (Cornus kousa) are just turning red, looking quite like Christmas ornaments.

Cornus kousa fruits.

Cornus kousa fruits.

The wet summer was a boon to the legions of lichens that adorn the trees in my yard. Lichens are not only beautiful and essential to the transformation of dead plant material into soil. I’m told they also signal good air quality; lichens won’t grow in smog-filled skies.

An array of lichens adorning a fallen dead tree branch.

An array of lichens adorning a fallen dead tree branch.

Even if my calendar didn’t tell me that today was the Autumnal Equinox, I would have known it was imminent. My Seven-Son Flower Tree never fails to signal Summer’s departure as it transforms its clusters of sweet, white flowers into clusters of purple-red sepals that consistently fool hummingbirds into thinking nectar hides within their embrace.

Purple-red sepals signal Autumn's arrival.

Purple-red sepals signal Autumn’s arrival, even as a few white flower clusters persist.

Rain-softened ground today made weed-pulling almost enjoyable; cool breezes prevented early autumn sunshine from overheating me as I tackled yet another area of my yard overwhelmed by the invaders that Summer’s rains invited willy nilly everywhere in my yard.

Other inhabitants were not entirely happy with my Autumn clean-up activities. A large earth-colored American toad hopped frantically between my legs when I removed its weedy camouflage. Numerous ant colonies bustled about carrying pearl-colored eggs to safety when I disturbed their weed-covered homes. And an Asian Praying Mantis female glowered at me with unblinking emerald eyes from her perch atop a pink-flowering abelia.

Her work is nearly done, though. I spotted freshly laid mantis egg masses firmly attached to the branches of a nearby shrub. Perhaps she was cranky from all that egg-laying; perhaps the cooling breeze told her that her time was nearly over.

Autumn’s arrival signals many endings, it’s true. But abundant fruits, well-hidden egg masses, slumbering salamanders, toads, anoles, skinks, and myriad snakes ensure that Spring’s beginnings are just a winter’s sleep away. Now is the time to tidy up our yards, tuck in a few new shrubs and trees, and settle indoors for some well-earned rest. Now is the time to dream of coming snows and next spring’s gardens.

Happy Autumn, everyone!

Happy Autumn, everyone!

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Autumn’s Fruits and Nuts

Autumn is only a few weeks along, but the occupants of my yard and gardens are progressing toward readying themselves for winter. For example, the lovely mushrooms in the above photo are sprouting up beside my driveway in growing numbers. As they grow from button stage (far left) to middle age (far right) and full ripeness (center), zillions of mushroom spores are readying themselves for release from the gills under the caps. Many colors and shapes of fungi are currently taking advantage of the cooler, damp weather here.

The Black Walnut had a very productive year. Hard hats to defend against falling nuts are no longer required when walking beneath it, but now one must watch every step to avoid slipping on the yellow-green orbs hiding in the grass.

The squirrels wait for the outer green husks to soften before they start working on these nuts.

The Red Buckeye had another bumper crop year. These nuts are poisonous, but the squirrels can’t resist carrying them all over the yard and burying them.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground. Some folks think these fruits are good luck.

The Beautyberry shrub and the big Hearts-a-burstin’ flourishing on the upper floodplain both had very productive years.

Even in deep shade, these colorful berries glow like Christmas ornaments.

Breaking hearts abound.

The Asian kousa dogwoods were also very fruitful. The evergreen one tended to produce fewer, fatter red globes like this:

The deciduous kousa dogwood must have been very thoroughly pollinated this year — yet another autumn beauty that seems to be vying for Christmas tree status.

This Cornus kousa dwells beside our back deck. Its leaves are just beginning to turn lovely shades of orange.

This recent visitor below was neither a fruit nor a nut, but it was so gorgeous that Wonder Spouse felt obliged to take its picture, and I’m glad he did. This was a new insect for us, a showy member of the dung beetle clan. Truly, if someone made a jeweled pin based on this creature, I would proudly wear it.

Meet a male Rainbow Scarab. The “horn” denotes its gender.

And here’s more of a side view:

Note the bit of spider web tangled in its horn.

This fellow was walking around our back deck. We suspect it stunned itself on one of our windows, staggering about just long enough for Wonder Spouse to document his visit. He flew off ten minutes later.

I’ll close today with a few more nuts — the animal kind. We seem to have a bumper crop of Green Anoles this year, perhaps the result of behavior like what I documented here. The front of our house faces west. Warmth from late afternoon sun combined with a flourishing front garden seem to have produced ideal anole habitat. One afternoon last week, I caught four basking on various parts of the front of my house — some large, some quite small.

The first one I saw was a large brown lizard that had trapped itself between my front door and the outer storm door. When I opened the inner door to go out, it frantically beat itself against the storm door until I could get it open. Here it is glowering at me as it recovers from its self-inflicted trauma.

Undamaged, but unhappy.

After taking that one’s picture, I noticed a small one basking on the front wall.

It was about six inches long, but quite skinny.

Then I spotted this green one hanging out around my bedroom window. It actually climbed the glass and seemed to be trying to peer inside.

I tried to persuade it that it will be far happier outdoors.

Finally that day, I spotted another green one below the bedroom window on the wall behind an overgrown rosemary shrub. It was more shy than the other three.

This rosemary started blooming last winter and only stopped during the July heat wave.

These anoles were all out on a very warm day. We had a string of 80+-degree days ahead of a cold front. I think perhaps they were all trying to soak up as much heat as they could before retiring to their winter slumber spots. I’m wondering if perhaps their abundance is making it difficult for them to all find cozy winter quarters, because of what I observed yesterday.

Yesterday was the last warm day before the arrival of a cold front that has dropped our temperatures about thirty degrees. And it was yesterday that Wonder Spouse noticed that a brown anole was actually on the inside of the window beside our front door. It must have slipped inside when one of us opened the door. It may well have been the same one that I caught between the two doors the day before.

Fortunately, it was quite cooperative about its relocation to the outdoors. We used a butterfly net, intending to scoop it up gently. But it chose to perch quietly on the rim long enough for us to escort it back outside to the garden, none the worse for its adventure.

Late yesterday as the sun was setting, one of the anoles did something even more unexpected — nuttier, if you will. I always leave my hummingbird feeder filled until the second week of October, or until I don’t see any hummers for a week or so. Yesterday when I checked the feeder before going inside, I saw this:

Yes, that’s an anole head peeking out from the middle. It’s curled up in the center cup where one can put water to deter ants.

I imagine the surrounding sugar water was quite warm from the late afternoon sun, and this little one thought it had found an ideal hangout. Of course, the water doesn’t stay warm at night, and any hummers trying to drop by wouldn’t know what to think, so we gently lifted down the feeder and encouraged the anole to return to the garden.

It really didn’t want to leave its cozy spot, but I think it was probably for the best.

I checked the front wall today without expecting to see any anoles. One brown one stuck its head out from behind a gutter for just a moment, then disappeared. Given our drizzly, chilly day, I was surprised to see an anole at all. I hope they are all settling down for a long winter’s sleep, along with all the other plants and animals that share our five acres of North Carolina Piedmont.

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Longest Night, Then More Light

Soon the sun grows stronger

Tomorrow morning at 12:30 a.m., Winter Solstice occurs. From that point until Summer Solstice in June, our daylight hours will lengthen.

But for the first month or so after Winter Solstice, it’s hard to believe the sun is winning against the darkness. Hanging low as it treks across the sky, its rays are feeble. Take, for example, the above photo that Wonder Spouse shot last week.

Those are the eastern woods just behind the creek that bounds our property. One of our all-too-brief cold spells had chilled the ground. Warm, moist air returning on a south wind met cold earth; mists were born. Sunrise was a battle between cold ground, warm air, and a weak sun.

A half hour later, the sun surrendered, disappearing behind yet another bank of thick clouds. Today, the sun made no appearance at all. A warm (60+ degrees Fahrenheit) rain softly patters on the roof. These false spring rains are predicted to continue for several days. I expect the Spring Peepers will be fooled into a tentative chorus or two before the cold returns late this week.

Before today’s rain, I took advantage of this latest bit of un-December weather to rake and relocate yet more leaves. And I transplanted some wildflowers. I found a Hearts-A-Burstin’ plant struggling against severe deer predation beneath a large red maple on my floodplain. It is now safely relocated within the part of my yard enclosed by deer fencing. Likewise, some Cranefly Orchids huddling unappreciated along an old fence line are now tucked into better spots.

The soft, warm rains will settle in the transplants, allowing roots to regroup, stretch out, and wait for the sun to win its battle with the darkness. I will try to follow their example, cultivating patience, dreaming of spring’s return.

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Hearts-a-burstin’ goodness

Seeds dangle from busted “hearts”

The botanists call it Euonymus americanus. One common name for it is Strawberry Bush. I prefer its other common name: Hearts A-Burstin’.

This often spindly native shrub of our moist woodlands has always been a favorite of mine, especially because the “hearts” open right around the time of my wedding anniversary.

Its common names refer to the showy fruits that take your breath away when you stumble across a specimen in the still-green forests of early fall. On a healthy plant, bumpy capsules colored and shaped like strawberries adorn every branch. When those capsules split open to reveal shiny orange-red seeds, you can easily imagine them to be hearts bursting open.

As neighboring forests have been erased by bulldozers, pushing more and more deer into my yard, I have only two shrubs remaining of the dozen that once graced my landscape. Both were fortuitously planted by birds in spots that disguise them from deer. One grows through a wire fence; the other through a native viburnum. They are both more than 6 feet tall, and right now bursting hearts weigh down every branch. Here’s a wider view to give you a sense of its visual impact:

Open “hearts” dangle from square-stemmed branches

The square stems of this plant remain green all year, which may explain their appeal to deer. In fact, my research tells me that this native occupant of our shady understory is a favorite food of deer. Consequently, the presence or absence of this shrub in the Piedmont landscape is an excellent indicator of deer population levels. If you see this shrub, your deer population is not too high; if you don’t, Bambi’s clan has overtaken your area.

Rabbits also eat the stems, and birds eat the berries, although not enthusiastically. But because the birds don’t devour the berries, they dangle longer on the open seed capsules, looking a bit like ornaments hanging on Christmas trees.

The greenish-white waxy flowers are inconspicuous. I have to remind myself to check the shrubs each spring so that I don’t miss them.

But if you are lucky enough to meet this native beauty in autumn, you will never forget it.

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