Posts Tagged Lindera benzoin

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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Spicebush for Birds and Butterflies

Before forest leaves unfold in early spring, Spicebush flowers (Lindera benzoin) add their subtle sunshine to the landscape.

Before forest leaves appear in early spring, Spicebush flowers (Lindera benzoin) add their subtle sunshine to the landscape.

Does your yard include a bit of shade, perhaps at the edge of a stand of taller trees, with soil that remains relatively moist — even wet — for most of the year? Or maybe your yard includes a low spot, where rainwater pools during prolonged downpours — another spot ideally suited for this native woodland shrub, which can be found in every state east of the Mississippi River, naturally occurring near streams, swamps or moist forest slopes.

The berries are a favorite of native fruit-eating birds.

The berries are a favorite of native fruit-eating birds.

When the berries on the female plants are ripe, they turn a deep scarlet, which contrasts beautifully with the bush’s deep green leaves. In my yard, the berries rarely last more than a month; the local birds must find them especially tasty.

Fall color of a spicebush.

Fall color of a spicebush.

The shrub gets its name from the sweet-spicy fragrance of its leaves, which also serves to deter browsing by deer. Some people make a tea from the leaves and twigs, and the dried, powdered fruits can be used as a nutmeg substitute.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Spicebush Swallowtail

Our local Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies use the shrub as a primary food source for their caterpillars. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars will also dine on the leaves, as will the big, beautiful Promethea Silkmoth.

Its fall color is a reliable clear yellow that glows in the shade of canopy trees in the forest.

Its fall color is a reliable clear yellow that glows in the shade of canopy trees in the forest.

I realized immediately that this favorite native understory shrub would do well on our floodplain, so we planted several. The birds took it from there. Now we have spicebushes growing in places that I didn’t think would be good habitat. The birds “planted” them all over my cool, shady north-facing slope, even at the top of the hill, where the soil gets quite dry during most summers. But the shrubs have had no trouble adapting to those growing conditions.

A spicebush caught between summer and fall.

A spicebush caught between summer and fall.

Thus, I conclude that this shrub can handle a wider range of growing conditions than you might expect, based on where they naturally occur. I think the key is shade from hot afternoon sun. If you ensure that this shrub is always sheltered from the worst of our summer heat, you will be rewarded with glossy-leaved shrubs in summer adorned by bright red berries (until the birds find them), followed by warm golden yellow autumn color that lingers until the first hard freeze.

You will find a fine array of healthy spicebush plants at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. Because you can’t tell the sex of a seedling that hasn’t yet bloomed, I recommend that you buy at least three of these wonderful native shrubs, increasing the likelihood that you get at least one male and one female plant. After they are established in your landscape and the female shrubs begin producing bright red berries, your local birds will “plant” a few more for you.


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Welcome, Autumn!


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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Hello, Spring?

Bloodroots nearing peak bloom

Bloodroots nearing peak bloom

On behalf of winter-weary gardeners everywhere, I bid you welcome! Spring — you are here, right? It is, of course, the day of the vernal equinox, that astronomical milestone that marks your onset. I ask, because, well, you seem to be a bit more capricious than usual this year.

Yes, the plants in my yard are showing definite signs of moving toward a new growing season, as evidenced by the beautiful native wildflowers in the above photo, blooming yesterday in my yard. They are just beginning to reach peak bloom; the ones in my north garden only yesterday peeked above ground. By last year’s vernal equinox, these flowers were nearly done.

Likewise, my beautiful Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ was well past peak bloom by last year’s equinox. This year, flower buds are just now swelling, as you can see here:

Magnolia 'Butterflies" flower buds are just now displaying a hint of color.

Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ flower buds are just now displaying a hint of color.

The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) are reaching peak bloom just in time for your arrival. Last year, they maxed out two weeks earlier. I love the tiny specks of bright yellow that adorn every branch.

The diminutive size of Spicebush flowers are difficult for my camera to capture adequately, but you get the idea.

The diminutive size of Spicebush flowers are difficult for my camera to capture adequately, but you get the idea.

One non-native early bloomer — my large Winterhazel — is about a week and a half behind last year’s peak blooming moment. The photo here was taken yesterday, and you can see that the flower clusters are just now pushing out their pendant strings of sunny bells.

Winterhazels are just beginning to bloom.

Winterhazels are just beginning to bloom.

My other big non-native bloomers — the loropetalum shrubs — seem to be more attuned to daylight changes than temperature. Flower buds are brimming with magenta color; a few are flaunting their bright strappy petals. But I’m guessing that the full spring display will occur just about the same time it did the previous two years.

Loropetalum flowers on the verge of exploding into neon magenta splendor.

Loropetalum flowers on the verge of exploding into neon magenta splendor.

That’s all well and good, Spring. A little variation in bloom time among the ornamentals on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont is entirely to be expected. That variability is actually part of what keeps gardening exciting; I never know when and what each season will bring.

On the other hand, your capriciousness is also a source of frustration. You see, I had a feeling you were going to take your time coming this year. So I started my spring greens in the greenhouse later than last year, planning to transplant them into their permanent beds about now. I expected later frosts, maybe even a light freeze, but because I cover the transplants in protective garden fabric, I figured they would remain unharmed.

But, Spring, you have turned my planting schedule upside down with this predicted ten-day bout of well-below-normal temperatures that includes a very hard freeze tomorrow night. The weather seers are calling for a low of 26 degrees Fahrenheit at the local airport. Here in the boonies, that will likely mean a low hovering in the mid-teens.

I can’t put tender transplants into the ground when you are bringing winter temperatures to my garden. That would be plant murder! Meanwhile, right on schedule, my onion starts arrived in the mail two days ago. Somehow, I must persuade them to be patient, because I can’t plant them yet either.

Raring to go!

Raring to go!

Spring, it’s getting crowded in the greenhouse. The greens are itching for permanent digs. My pots of ornamental plants that overwinter in the greenhouse are all putting out new growth, gaining size and enthusiasm for your arrival daily.

I know I can’t stop your games, Spring, so I’ll do my best to convince the greens to be patient a few days. I think I know what you’re up to. After lingering early and long last year, you don’t want to party here at all. I think you’re planning to pound us with winter weather until April arrives, and then depart almost immediately, letting summer’s temperatures sear us before the canopy trees are even properly leafed out. The models of the weather forecasters seem to agree. They are calling for above-normal temperatures for most of the US during the month of April, which is why I’m going to sow tomato and pepper seeds in the germination chamber in my greenhouse later today.

I love you, Spring, really, I do. But, frankly, your whimsy is one of the reasons my hair is as white as the new snow covering Boston — again — this week.

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Look fast!

Golden leaves of spicebush

No lingering autumn for us this year, folks. An unfortunate intersection of a late hurricane and a strong arctic cold front is about to blast the eastern United States from Maine to Florida. In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I live, strong sustained winds will rip autumn color from the trees and whirl it away to parts unknown. Clouds will own the skies until next Wednesday, although not much rain is predicted to fall. And our electricity may blink, sputter, and perhaps even vanish for some time. But compared to what is forecast for the northeastern states, we are fortunate. My prayers are with the folks to my north. They are in for a very rough ride.

Knowing what was coming, I took advantage of the last sunny day to capture a few images of my yard. By the end of next week, it may well be winter bare. The Spicebush above (Lindera benzoin) is glowing on the floodplain beneath a canopy of already-bare ashes. The golden color is impossible to miss from our back deck.

In the front flowerbed, Pineapple Sage plants are busy pushing out as many scarlet blooms as they can before the first frost shuts them down for the season. Lethargic carpenter bees drowse on blooms on cool mornings, weighing down the flowers as they wait for the morning sun’s first kiss.

Pineapple Sage flowers

Also up front, the Southern Magnolia is playing hostess to a wide range of birds and squirrels as crimson fruits dangle enticingly from her many cones. The woodpeckers are especially boisterous, but any day now, I expect migrating flocks of robins to stage a takeover. They always do.

Irresistible magnolia fruits attract many admirers.

Walking along the creek that borders our property, I was delighted to discover the bright red fruits of a Jack-in-the-Pulpit lying among fallen leaves. I picked some of the fruits and spread them in other parts of the yard where I think these lovely wetland plants should thrive.

A flashy fruit ending for a relatively demure wetland species.

Looking up at the brilliant azure sky, I noticed reddening leaves high atop a large Sweet Gum tree, so I took a photo. It was only when I viewed it on the computer that I noticed the branches were weighed down by still-ripening seed balls. When they turn brown and crack open, zillions of little seeds will be released. Sometimes on quiet days, I can hear them hitting dry leaves on the ground, like a gentle rain. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings will appear when the fruits are ripe. They make quite a racket as they dangle from branches devouring seeds.

Another bumper crop of Sweet Gum fruits will be ready very soon.

I’ll be sad to see all this autumn beauty scoured away by relentless storm winds. I really enjoyed the way it lingered last year well into November. But I didn’t enjoy the absurdly warm winter and early spring that failed to produce enough cold to kill problem insects and diseases.

And a bare-branched winter cold sky holds its own kind of beauty. I will welcome the short days and weak sun, knowing the important work that winter does for my garden.

Autumn 2012, we barely knew you. But it was beautiful while it lasted. Farewell.

Fierce winds will carry the last of the butterflies far, far away.





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Recently Sighted Fauna and Flora

Northern Cricket Frog?

In the last two weeks, a new species of frog has been hanging out on the edge of our little front yard water feature. Yesterday, two were sitting on opposite sides of the pond. Both are about three inches long, and this zoomed-in photo I took makes me think they are Northern Cricket Frogs.

This species is common in my wetland, but I’ve never seen them sitting on the edge of my little front pond before this year. I think perhaps they were born in the pond and recently emerged. They’re probably waiting for a rain event to disperse to less exposed areas. I was surprised by the lumpy texture on such petite amphibians.

A couple of new butterfly species have flitted through in the last couple of weeks. They didn’t stay long in one place, so my pictures are not optimal. But I think I have identified them correctly.

Monarch butterfly

I almost walked into this Monarch butterfly as it was sipping from my row of lantanas. Of course, it flew away before I could take its picture. It then briefly landed on the Chinese Abelia, which is where I managed to snap a very quick shot before it dashed off. I haven’t seen one since then. My Swamp Milkweed didn’t fare well this year. The July heat wave and drought made it surrender without blooming. I’m hoping to add at least one more species of milkweed to another area — a species that’s more heat- and drought-tolerant.

Another brief visitor to the vegetable garden was this battered specimen:

Great Spangled Fritillary?

A few of this species have visited my yard off and on throughout the summer. This one stopped to sip from a bean flower just long enough for me to snap its photo. I think it’s a Great Spangled Fritillary, but I confess the fritillaries look very much alike to me. I’m mostly basing my guess on my location.

The most interesting recent faunal encounter was a love story, well, perhaps more of a lust story. I spotted a male Writing Spider dancing at the edge of a female’s web. I saw him there two days in a row before he vanished. My research tells me that if he successfully courted the female, he either died soon after or was devoured by his lover.

The male is always much smaller. He’s the spider in the upper right corner of this photo.

The plants have been busy too. Most are finalizing fruit production. The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) set an unusually large number of gorgeous red berries this year. I think the fruit-loving birds will be pleased when they notice, if they haven’t already.

The berries in this shot are on a 12′ x 6′ shrub full of crimson-berry-laden branches.

As is always the case, the branches of my Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera) are adorned by zillions of the large “two-winged” fruits from which its common name arises. When they are fully ripe, they turn brown, and soon after, squirrels devour every fruit.

When the squirrels tire of dining on acorns, they turn to the fruits of Two-winged Silverbell.

Flowers still abound also. I’ve come to expect Jewelweed’s (Impatiens capensis) arrival in late summer/early fall. Sure enough, it’s popping up in abundance right on schedule. Especially dense thickets line our side of the creek. In deep drought years, the water-rich stems of this wildflower are irresistible to thirsty deer. This year, we either have fewer deer, or they’re not as thirsty, because the Jewelweed is blooming enthusiastically from one end of the floodplain to the other.

The plants in this patch were about an inch shorter than me.

One recent bout of flowering was a surprise. My two white-blooming Florida Anise-trees (Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’) reside beneath dense shade that protects them from western and southern sunshine. I think that location, combined with off-and-on measurable rainfall for most of August, triggered a second round of blooming in these evergreen shrubs. Interestingly, I planted one of their red-blooming cousins (Halley’s Comet) in the same location, but it did not rebloom.

Sometimes when you see a second round of blooms from a shrub in the fall, its spring blooms are less impressive, because the plant spent much of its energy on autumn flowers. It will be interesting to observe how many flowers my albas produce next spring. For now, we are enjoying the unexpected bonus of glowing white star-like flowers against deep green leaves.

August blooms of Illicium floridanum ‘Alba’

As I observe my landscape transitioning from summer to fall, my prayers go out to the folks enduring a visit from what was Hurricane Isaac until quite recently. Hurricane Fran was the beast folks in my region still talk about; forests still show clear signs of the damage caused by her winds and water. Mother Nature is indeed capricious, simultaneously bestowing unexpected flowers and unforeseen chaos in different parts of our country.

Here’s hoping Isaac is the last hurricane to make landfall in the United States this year.

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Racing ahead of the vernal equinox

See those little green sprouts just peeking up through the soil? Those are the Sugar Sprint Snap Peas I planted two weeks and four days ago. A few peas have been up for several days, but this morning I counted 24 pea sprouts. When the warmth returns day after tomorrow, I predict that at least that many more will appear. I like peas. I planted a lot of seeds.

Although I thought I had watered them well, I think the peas were waiting for a significant rain event, which we finally got this past weekend. My rain gauge reported 1.1 inches of rain for the two-day event. My creek actually rose and got silty! The floodplain held puddles of rainwater for over 24 hours. That hasn’t happened in so long that I can’t remember the last time it happened. Ten years ago, the floodplain was usually puddle-covered most of the winter. Of course, it helps to actually have a winter season, something we didn’t get this year.

Which brings me back to those enthusiastic peas. Most years, I’m just thinking about planting them, and this year they’re up and running. Did I mention how much we love the flavor of snap peas? They freeze well, so no pea is ever wasted.

It’s not just the vegetables that aren’t waiting for the vernal equinox to start their spring shows. Check out the blooms on my Chinese Redbud:

Chinese Redbud

Not all the blooms have opened, but enough now display their lavender radiance to brighten that corner of my winter landscape.

The native spicebush is covered in diminutive yellow flowers that make their visual impact by their sheer numbers — especially effective against a winter sky:

Lindera benzoin flowers 

The crimson flowers of the red maples are morphing into equally vivid seeds — samaras, the botanists call them.

Acer rubrum flowers morph into winged crimson seeds

Many of my ornamental stars are rushing full tilt into spring bloom. Check out these pink hyacinths:

My beautiful Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ is cracking open its petals. I’m hoping they’re still closed enough to avoid getting zapped by tonight’s predicted temperatures in the low twenties.

Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ showing hints of yellow

There’s more, which I’ll show you soon. Every time I walk our five acres these days, something else is taking a headlong leap into a spring that hasn’t officially started yet.

Meanwhile in the greenhouse, all the tomatoes I sowed last Wednesday have germinated; most achieved 100% germination. Viva Italia, Early Goliath, Sweet Treats, and Big Beef are all up; these are my old reliable varieties, and I’m not surprised they’re raring to go. Indigo Rose seedlings began showing up a day after the first sprouts of those other varieties, and now all but one of the seeds I sowed has sprouted. My primary supplier of tomato seeds sent me a freebie package of mixed heirloom tomatoes, which I couldn’t resist. Most of those have germinated now, responding in about the same time frame as Indigo Rose.

With the impending explosion of tomatoes in the greenhouse, it is imperative that all spring veggie starts get planted out into the garden ASAP. My goal is to get them all tucked in before predicted rains return this Friday. I’m also hoping to direct-sow all the other spring garden veggies: beets, two carrot varieties, and many varieties of salad greens. Before I can start, I must pull winter weeds and crimson clover off of two large beds. I see a tired body and cranky joints in my near future.

But the pain will be worth it when I’m dining on just-harvested spring salads. My timing is good. The full moon will be smiling down on the newly planted garden this Thursday while Spring Peepers and American Toads chorus in the swamp, and the eerie territorial calls of Screech Owls (heard for the first time ever yesterday) echo among the still bare trees.

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Volunteers aren’t always welcome

Yesterday morning, I was wandering around the deer-fence-enclosed north-facing slope side of my yard, where we’ve planted a number of well-adapted understory natives beneath a mature canopy of River Birches, Water Oak, Tulip Poplars, Sweet Gums, and a few Loblolly Pines in one corner.  Here’s an angle that shows you a triangular arrangement of three canopy members:

Some canopy residents on our north-facing slope

The tall tree in the foreground is a non-native Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) we planted about 18 years ago. It is a deciduous conifer native to China and deserves its own entry another day. The lovely tree on the right is a Water Oak (Quercus nigra). Higher up the slope and to the left is a mature Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Further back, you can see the green needles of a group of mature Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda).

What you can’t see very well right now are the dormant deciduous shrubs we’ve added beneath and around this trio. Several deciduous azaleas and viburnums are doing well in this spot, and some recently planted native blueberry species (Vaccinium spp.) are settling in nicely.

Beneath the Red Cedar are two Spicebushes (Lindera benzoin), the seeds of which must have been deposited by birds. I didn’t put them there. I thought Spicebushes needed more moisture than that hilltop offers, which is why I planted some on my floodplain. I guess the joke was on me, because the birds “planted” quite a few of these lovely shrubs all through the north hilltop, right down to the creek’s edge on that side. I love them (I told you why here); they aren’t interfering with anything where the birds put them; they are welcome to stay.

However, yesterday, I discovered another native volunteer near the Red Cedar: Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia). The seedling must have come from a nut planted by an industrious squirrel, because the mother tree I planted on the floodplain (its supposed preferred habitat) is about two hundred yards away and around the other side of the house from where this one popped up. Here’s the volunteer Red Buckeye, its new leaves freshly open to the spring air:

Red Buckeye seedling volunteer

Red Buckeye is a beautiful native understory tree that I planted on purpose — on the floodplain — mostly for its early red flower clusters, which provide a popular source of nectar for the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds that arrive the first week of April. However, it matures into quite a bushy specimen that takes up a good 15-20-foot-wide space. And where this seedling appeared, that space is already reserved for the azaleas, viburnums, and native blueberries that I planted there first.

Thus, I’ll be pulling up this seedling and relegating it to the compost pile. Since I planted the mother tree on the floodplain about 15 years ago, I’ve learned that Red Buckeyes — although native to our region — can quite assertively spread their seedlings around via their poisonous nuts (called buckeyes).  I’ve decided to leave the mother tree on the floodplain alone, and if her seedlings in that area aren’t interfering with anything else, they can stay.

But my north-facing slope garden is reserved for special plants — plants that appreciate the cooler shade of the north-facing canopy trees — plants that reward me with a succession of exquisite blooms. I’ll show you what I mean as winter fully releases its hold on an eager spring.

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Spicing up the piedmont landscape

When choosing plants for the landscape, most folks understandably focus on a plant’s appearance. I do that too. However, I also use my nose. Of course, I like flowers that smell good, but I love leaves that smell good too, especially spicy leaves.

A number of our native plant species have spicy fragrances, probably because the chemicals responsible also repel predators by making the leaves taste less appealing. One example is an understory shrub common to moist forests of the piedmont — Lindera benzoin, or Spicebush.

This shrub isn’t particularly showy, although small yellow flowers that open before the leaves do brighten an early spring landscape if a few plants are grouped together. And their warm gold leaves light up the understory every autumn. The species is dioecious, which means male and female flowers are found on separate plants; the female plants produce bright red berries beloved by the feathered crowd.

I introduced this shrub to my floodplain for its spicy leaves. I’ve read that you can make a tasty tea from them, but I’ve never tried. I planted these bushes so that I can walk by during the growing season, grab and crush a leaf, and inhale its sweet-spicy goodness. I also added this species because it’s a key food plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. These lovely butterflies have definitely increased their visits to my summer flowers since I added the food plant their caterpillar stage requires.

Details about this shrub are readily available on the Web. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s site is always a good one to visit for information on natives. You can read what they say about Spicebush here.

I count adding this native beauty a win on multiple levels: early spring flowers, berries for birds, spicy goodness for me, and more butterflies to add beauty and movement to my landscape.

Here’s a photo that Wonder Spouse took of a Spicebush Swallowtail visiting one of our Swamp Milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) — another native I’m crazy about and will describe another time.

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