Posts Tagged Magnolia ‘Butterflies’

Flip-Flop Weather

The title is not about rubber sandals, although we’ve already had a few days when that attire would not have been inappropriate. I’m referring to the up-and-down weather swings that increasingly characterize the winter-to-spring transition here in central North Carolina.

Our last snow was on January 29, when we got a light dusting that melted a few hours after this sunrise photo was taken. The week before, we got three inches of snow that stuck around for a few days. January was an unusually relentlessly cold month.

A meteorological switch flipped at the beginning of February. Temperatures soared, ground thawed, daffodils and crocus bloomed with abandon, and the local bird population began territorial displays and nesting site inspections.

I started getting nervous, because I’ve been gardening in these parts plenty long enough to know a hard freeze was nearly inevitable. I walked around the yard exhorting swelling buds to slow down, reminding them that the average last freeze date is mid-April. Alas, I was ignored as sap rose, bird song filled the air, and the sweet fragrance of blooming witch hazels — plants adapted for late-winter blooming — perfumed the air.

Of course, part of the problem is that I long ago planted some lovely early bloomers that are not native to my area. Royal Stars magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’) is a gorgeous Asian species with precocious blooms that get at least partially freeze-fried nearly every year. Overnight, gorgeous white petals emitting soft perfume become brown papery blobs. Here are before and after shots of the entire tree.

Another magnolia that gets fried is a cultivar called Butterflies. Its bright yellow blooms are frequently browned by late freezes. This year, the flowers didn’t even get a chance to fully open. But they were open just enough to be vulnerable to one 19-degree night a week or so ago. Here are their sad before and after photos.

This transitional moment is not without visual rewards. Now, just before the canopy trees leaf out and obscure the eastern horizon, I savor every sunrise that paints the morning sky.

Those dawn pastels have been obscured lately, though, as we flip-flop from cold to warm to cold to now wet. Very wet. In the last two weeks, our rain gauge has recorded about 4.5 inches of rain. The last two inches fell last night. The adjacent creek poured over its banks and onto floodplains on either side. As darkness fell this evening, the water had not receded.

This morning’s view of the creek.

Even the floods have their up side. At noon today, we watched five Canada geese take turns riding down a rapidly flowing overflow channel on our floodplain. They would jump in beside the channel’s intersection with the creek, then float happily down the channel until it grew too shallow to float them further. Spring peepers and cricket frogs sing at deafening levels night and day, insisting that it is time to procreate.

I may find these wild weather swings distressing, but the native flora and fauna  are undeterred. I’m thinking there’s a lesson for me in all this. I can’t let a bit of flip-flopping get me down.



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STOP — and Savor Summer’s Waning

Spicebush Swallowtail stops for a drink.

Spicebush Swallowtail stops for a drink.

I’m seeing a variety of reds in my landscape these days, most of it not attributable to leaf color — that will come later. Red flowers and fruits — and related colors in that family — are visible in nearly every corner of my yard. I think of them as stop signals; they alert me to slow down and  linger with the lovelies in my landscape before all that beauty fades.

Ripening seeds are also sporting red colors, signaling wildlife that fruits are ready for consumption.

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower

Vermillion spires of Cardinal Flowers set fire to shady spots on my floodplain and random, self-sowed corners of perennial beds.

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

Magenta heads of a cluster of late-blooming Joe Pye Weed glow in a spotlight beam of sun that managed to pierce the dense canopy.

Green frog

Green frog

Green frogs float on my green pond, their bulging eyes watching summer’s waning as they seek unwary winged meals.

Spicebush Swallowtail on a Beauty Basket Zinnia

Spicebush Swallowtail on a Beauty Berry Zinnia

In this year of few butterflies, Spicebush Swallowtails are the most common large butterfly in my landscape, possibly due to the abundance of native spicebushes tucked under the towering canopy trees.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Chinese Abelia bloom

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Chinese Abelia bloom

An occasional Eastern Tiger Swallowtail floats through the humid late-summer heat, unable to resist the potent perfume of the Chinese Abelia bushes dotting the sunnier parts of my landscape.

Umbrella Magnolia seed cones

Umbrella Magnolia seed cones

The native Umbrella Magnolia that thrives beside the creek produced quite a few seed cones this year. Even tucked into deep shade, the ripe cones stop my forward progress, demanding admiration.

Scarlet Wild Basil

Scarlet Wild Basil


Native to the Sandhills region of NC, my Scarlet Wild Basil continues to produce abundant orange-red blossoms, drawing daily visits from hummingbirds, and admiring questions from visitors.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Milkweed flower

Spicebush Swallowtail on Milkweed flower

Like hummingbirds, Spicebush Swallowtails often hover as they feed, blurring my photographs as they rush to drink all they can before summer’s flowers disappear.

Maple-leaf viburnum berries

Mapleleaf Viburnum berries

As soon as they are fully ripe, the reddened berries on native Mapleleaf Viburnum are devoured by wildlife.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

Slowly and methodically, the Praying Mantises in my landscape grow fat on the insect bounty attracted to summer’s blooms. This one hunted from a large lantana beside my front door for three days, then moved on to new territory.

Everywhere I look, Nature’s signals are clear. Animals fatten, seeds ripen, blooms explode in late-summer splendor. All feel the changing angle of the sun as it makes its daily trek across the sky. Soon, too soon, cold air will descend from the North, browning flora, scattering fauna.

But every gardener knows that winter sleeps are essential rhythms in Nature’s dance. The pauses make the crescendos that much more powerful.

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All Signs Point to Spring


Blossoms abound, bird song delights ears from dawn to dark, pollen is ubiquitous — yup, I’d say spring is most definitively here. Those are petals from a redbud tree floating in that little birdbath. Here’s one of the native redbud trees adorning our landscape at the moment:

Redbud bloom color really pops against a background of red cedars.

Redbud bloom color really pops against a background of red cedars.

Along with all the flowers, native wildlife is suddenly more evident everywhere, especially the water-loving birds. In addition to the Wood Ducks that nest along our creek every spring, this year, a pair of Canada Geese has moved in. I see them paddling up and down the creek at dawn most mornings. They seem to have claimed the downstream end, while the Wood Ducks dabble in the waters upstream. The geese will leave as soon as their young are adept fliers. But I’ll likely see the family patrolling the floodplain for about a month before they leave.

More exciting than these waterfowl is the return of the Belted Kingfishers. Every day now, I see and hear one flying the length of our adjacent creek, calling raucously before it settles on a good fishing perch.

The water birds are here because the creek is healthier than it has been in recent springs. Water levels are back to optimal levels, thanks to abundant rains. The surrounding wetlands are very, very wet, dissected by many water-filled channels, where crayfish and frogs thrive. The cinnamon ferns have unfurled their fiddleheads, the glossy green leaves of Atamasco Lilies promise imminent flower shoots, and any day now I expect to spot Jack-in-the-Pulpits poking up out of the mud.

My two gorgeous early-blooming Magnolia acuminata varieties have been perfuming the air and delighting the eye for several weeks now. ‘Butterflies,’ as usual, was the first variety to bloom, its 25-foot tall frame covered in deep yellow blossoms.

One of the last Magnolia 'Butterflies' blossoms.

One of the last Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ blossoms.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth,’ now 50 feet tall, started opening her paler yellow blossoms about a week after Butterflies started.  She still sports many gorgeous blooms, but I fear the mini-heat wave we’re getting this weekend will finish off the display all too quickly.

Magnolia 'Elizabeth' -- 50 feet of spectacular!

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ — 50 feet of spectacular!

In the last few days, my three Serviceberry trees have begun opening abundant pure white flower clusters. I think last summer’s rains were good for them. They’ve never been more covered in flowers. Maybe this will be the year they produce enough fruits for both the birds and me.

Apple Serviceberry blossoms. Pollinators adore them.

Apple Serviceberry blossoms. Pollinators adore them.

Over the years, I have no idea how many different kinds of daffodils I’ve added to our five acres, nor do I remember most of their names. But I do know that I made a point of planting varieties that would bloom from late winter through late spring. This succession of increasingly abundant blossoms every spring never seems too adversely affected by whimsical weather patterns. In fact, whenever spring cool spells and/or rainy weather is predicted this time of year, I routinely cut a quick bouquet of beauteous blooms to keep me company indoors until the sun returns. These varieties started blooming about the middle of last week:

The pink centers get bleached out a bit by sunlight, but they are lovely.

The pink centers get bleached out a bit by sunlight, but they are lovely.

These pure white, ruffled blossoms are especially elegant.

These pure white, ruffled blossoms are especially elegant.

These bloom in tight clusters for an instant bouquet effect, and their fragrance is super sweet.

These bloom in tight clusters for an instant bouquet effect, and their fragrance is super sweet.

The previous owner had planted forsythia, a ubiquitous southeastern spring landscape shrub. I relocated the bushes from my front door to an area near my road. Their abundant blooms seem to indicate they had no objections.

It isn't spring in the southeast without sunny forsythia flowers.

It isn’t spring in the southeast without sunny forsythia flowers.

The Golden Ragwort is just starting its own parade of yellow blossoms:

Golden ragwort is an easy wildflower to add to southeastern landscapes.

Golden Ragwort is an easy wildflower to add to southeastern landscapes.

The earliest blooming native deciduous azalea on the north side of my yard is about to burst into bloom. The other species/varieties are full of swelling flower bud clusters.

Pinxterbloom Azalea will be the first native azalea to bloom, as usual.

Pinxterbloom Azalea will be the first native azalea to bloom, as usual.

The spring ephemeral wildflowers I showed you in my previous post are zooming through their life cycles as promised.

Bloodroots now sport point seed capsules, their lovely white flowers gone with the wind.

Bloodroots now sport pointy seed capsules, their lovely white flowers gone with the wind.

See the swelling round flower bud between the two Mayapple leaves? It will be open any second now.

See the swelling round flower bud between the two Mayapple leaves? It will be open any second now.

In short, my five acres of green chaos is busting out all over. Alas, it’s not just the invited plants reproducing so enthusiastically right now.  I am walking like a bent-over granny on evenings preceded by a day of weeding. The winter weeds got light years ahead of me in the vegetable garden area this year. Before I can plant, they must go, and that work isn’t nearly as much fun as it once was (hah!)

But the spring veggies are looking good, despite mini heat waves, heavy rains, and occasional frosts. And the summer vegetables, herbs, and flowers are growing tall and eager safely tucked in the greenhouse, waiting for more stable weather and weed-free beds.

Aye, there’s the rub — weed-free beds. I see many pollen-filled, sweaty days of joint-punishing work in front of me. But all the hard work pays off times ten when we dine on fresh-picked salads, juicy tomato-and-basil sandwiches, and green beans the likes of which you’ll never taste unless you grow them yourself.

And when I need a break from the veggie garden, I renew my resolve with a flower-filled walk around the landscape. Nothing puts a fresh spring in my step better than Spring!

Even my "lawn" is adorned with many wildflowers, including gazillions of violets.

Even my “lawn” is adorned with many wildflowers, including gazillions of violets.


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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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Yesterday’s News

Farewell, Butterflies

The vernal equinox occurred during the wee hours this morning. Astronomically speaking, that makes spring officially here. As is true for much of the United States this year, the news is entirely anticlimactic.

My early spring bloomers have not only been blooming for weeks, many of them finished almost as soon as they started, thanks to the record heat and drought that continues to plague my corner of the Piedmont in North Carolina.

Case in point: my lovely Magnolia ‘Butterflies.’ Two days after it began blooming, petal drop started. The above photo was taken three days ago. Now almost all the petals have dropped.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ didn’t wait her usual week after Butterflies to commence her floral display. Instead, she peaked the same day the photo above of Butterflies was taken. Here’s a shot of the whole tree. Elizabeth is a knock-out — visually and aromatically — when she is at her peak like this:

Regal Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ holds court among the pines

Wonder Spouse took all these photos, by the way. You may well want to click on them to enlarge them, so you can fully appreciate their quality. Here’s a close-up of Elizabeth’s flowers taken the same day as the above photo:

Elizabeth’s pale yellow flowers fade to a soft parchment white shortly after opening

The Bloodroots growing on my north-east-facing slope above the creek began blooming about the same time that Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ got started.  Here’s one that’s been open for a couple of days:

Look fast; Bloodroots don’t last long even in good years.

And here’s what most of them looked like that day:

Bloodroot petals lie discarded on the ground as the seed capsule expands.

Not to be outdone by these precocious bloomers, the first flowers of my native Pinxterbloom Azalea were nearly open the same day that the above photos were taken (March 17). That’s three weeks ahead of last year.

Really? So soon?

For the first time that I can remember, my oak trees are racing the Loblolly Pines to see which will release their pollen first. I think it may well be a tie. I cannot remember that happening before. Not ever in all the 5+ decades I’ve lived in North Carolina.

So, Vernal Equinox — welcome, I guess. The party started well before your arrival this year. And it’s already well on its way to its conclusion. I just hope that by the time the Summer Solstice arrives, my landscape doesn’t look too much like the Sahara Desert.

One of countless Grape Hyacinths that randomly pop up in parts of our “lawn” this time of year — whatever season you choose to call it.

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Warp Factor Spring

In mid-March, this is what I expect to see: vivid crocus blooms. This year, these two are stragglers, blooming later than their crocus comrades by more than three weeks.

My blooming trees are at least a week ahead of last year. Prompted by our absurd eighty-degree weather, Magnolia ‘Butterflies‘ has exploded into flower. Look how vividly yellow they are in the early morning as they just open:

And here’s what the tree looked like as I stared up its trunk from ground level:

I couldn’t stay too long. The potent perfume of the zillions of flowers was overwhelming.

My Chinese redbud is at peak bloom. Here’s a close-up:

And now the native redbuds are getting into the act. Here’s what the branches of one of my larger specimens looked like this morning:

And, yes, the sky really was that blue.

The winterhazels are nearly at peak bloom. Here’s a view of branches obscuring one of my bird feeders:

And here’s a close-up of winterhazel flowers:

I think their vivid color makes forsythias look dowdy.

There’s lots more, of course, but I want to give you a brief veggie update. Yesterday, I transplanted the Super Marzano tomatoes to larger pots. They didn’t miss a beat. Here they are looking like they’ve always lived in these pots:

And here are the other tomato, pepper, and basil seedlings:

Their roots are mostly hitting the bottom of their pots now. So they’ll be getting upgraded to bigger pots very soon.

Today, I sowed seeds of many of the free flowers that I got from Renee’s Garden as a benefit of my membership in the Garden Writers’ Association. I’ll be reporting on how they do throughout the growing season. I also sowed more basil seeds, because I’m planning on giving away some plants to a community garden. I’ve got the greenhouse and the seeds; I figure I should share the wealth.

Last weekend, Wonder Spouse double-shredded a big pile of fallen leaves that we had collected last winter. These broken-up leaves make the absolutely best mulch in the world for my vegetable garden. As fast as Wonder Spouse shredded it, I was tucking it around my sprouting sugar snap peas and onion plants. The peas responded instantly by growing taller. Here’s what they looked like this morning:

I am worried about our heat wave. We are predicted to remain 20 degrees above normal several more days, then we back down to a mere 10 degrees above normal. Even though I got my spring garden planted earlier than ever before, if the heat persists, I won’t get much of a yield from it.

For now, I’m watering often, in hopes that plenty of moisture will help the spring veggies thrive despite the heat. Our area remains in moderate drought, so every time I’m watering, I’m also praying for significant, frequent rain. And cooler temperatures, of course. Eighty-four degrees in mid-March is too much for any of us to handle for long.

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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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All Fall Down

Golden leaves of Halesia diptera carpet the ground

It happens so fast this time of year. One moment the forest is ablaze with vivid leaves that dance in the lightest breeze. The next moment the color moves from branches to forest floor, leaves settling at the bases of parent trees, creating patchworks of color for feet to kick up during crisp autumn walks. But the bright leaf carpet is fleeting, quickly morphing to browns and rusts, as if to match the starkness of bare branches above.

Different tree species move through this cycle at varying rates. Leaves of Ashes and Black Cherries in my yard go from green to brown and abandon their branches in mid-September, seemingly eager to begin their winter rest. Tulip Poplar leaves turn bright yellow next, and begin to drift to the ground (along with thousands of seeds) about the time the Red Maples and Sweet Gum leaves are painting themselves gold, pumpkin orange, and garnet red.

Some trees drop their leaves over the course of several weeks. Some seem to receive a signal (perhaps the change in daylight?) that causes them to shrug off their leaves all at once, leaving carpets of color at their feet. That’s what my Halesia diptera did a few days ago, as you can see in the above photo. Wonder Spouse used the opportunity to create a new fall header for my blog.

The Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) that grow along my creek recently cast off their gold and brown leaves simultaneously, creating quite a colorful, crunchy carpet on my floodplain as you can see here:

Sycamore leaves carpet my floodplain

I love these trees best in winter, when their magnificent trunks glow in weakened sunshine.

The compound leaves of the young Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) on my hill turn a sickly greenish yellow mostly; their weight causes them to stick close together near the base of the tree like this:

Black Walnut leaves tend to collect near the base of the tree

Here’s a closer view of some of the leaves:

Yellow-green compound leaves of Black Walnut

Sweet Gum leaves end up blowing everywhere, mixing in with the leaves of other species. Here are a few examples that turned my favorite rich garnet hue:

Garnet Sweet Gum leaves

Finally for today, I want to show you autumn leaves of three of my deciduous Magnolia specimens. First up, the fallen leaves of Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala). This native of moist forests of the Piedmont and Mountains grows along my creek. I rescued it from a similar setting on a friend’s land that was slated for the bulldozer. Although its leaves are not as large as Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), you can see how the Umbrella Magnolia leaves dominate the forest floor:

Tobacco-gold leaves of Umbrella Magnolia

My two cultivars of Cucumber Magnolia not only bloom at different times, they also drop their leaves at different times. Leaves of M. acuminata var. ‘Butterflies’ turn briefly pale yellow, then brown and fall quickly in mid-October, sticking close to the base of the tree, as you can see here:

Fallen leaves of M. acuminata var. ‘Butterflies’

The older cultivar of this species that I grow – M. acuminata var ‘Elizabeth’ — not only blooms later, but also retains its rich gold-and-brown leaves much longer. As I type this, Elizabeth has not yet released her bright cloak of autumn color, as shown in this close-up of a few branches here:

M. acuminata var. ‘Elizabeth’ still retains her autumnal splendor

Always the last to relinquish their hold on autumn are the native oaks. They only began to color up a couple of weeks ago, and only a few of their leaves have fallen. It will be late November, some years even mid-December, before my mighty oak canopy trees stand starkly naked against a wintry sky.

That’s OK by me. It gives me a reason to postpone raking. After all, there’s no reason to do it more than once, right?

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It could have been worse – and better

Enough time has passed since the hard freeze of last Tuesday morning’s early hours for me to assess damage to my plants. Three magnolias were dramatically impacted. Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ lost its final few blossoms and some early emerging leaves to the cold.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ was hit harder. Most of its flowers were still at peak bloom, as you may remember from this entry. Now Elizabeth looks like this:

Post-freeze Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ flower

And this:

Post-freeze Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ branches

The good news is that Elizabeth’s leaves were still tightly closed within their buds, so as soon as the mushy brown flowers fall, it will look normal.

Another of my magnolias that has not yet bloomed for me was just leafing out.  Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’ has grown into a 12-foot tree – too tall for me to cover. This Chinese magnolia cultivar is supposed to have gorgeous pink blooms. But now that its first flush of new leaves have been blackened by the freeze, it probably won’t have enough enthusiasm to generate flower buds for next spring either.

Remember the Piedmont Azalea (Rhododendron canescens) that I described as about to bloom? Despite my attempt to cover it, many flower buds were damaged, as you can see here:

Post-freeze Piedmont azalea flower buds

Not all the flower buds look so damaged, so I will likely see some healthy pink blossoms. But the shrub won’t be the showstopper it should have been.

A few additional trees and shrubs have damaged bits here and there, but I believe the newly leafed-out canopy trees all survived intact. All in all, the freeze could have been far more disastrous. It appears that we’ve dodged another black spring.

I wish I could report similar good news regarding precipitation. Yes, we got some, but nearby areas got much more, as has been the heart-breaking trend for some months now. Our automated gauge only registered 0.87 while many others within 30 miles of here got an inch and a half or more. Our creek levels came up briefly, but have already receded. The biggest winner appears to be the lawn; we will be mowing this weekend for sure.

I am grateful that the freeze didn’t hurt more tender vegetation, but I confess I am getting pretty cranky about the way the precipitation continues to detour around my thirsty yard.

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Perfumed Light: Magnolia ‘Butterflies’

Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ Flowers

Spectacular right? Just in time for spring’s premier, my Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ has graced our yard with hundreds of fragrant yellow blossoms. If you stand 100 yards downwind of it, the sweet scent of all those flowers is still powerfully present.

This Magnolia cultivar is a cross between M. acuminata and M. denudata. The flowers are 3-5 inches across (mine are closer to 5 inches), and the tree matures to an estimated height between 18 to 20 feet.

I got mine as a tiny foot-tall plant from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as a one-free-plant-a-year benefit of membership about 17 years ago. Since I doubt I’ll ever make it to that garden, I now am a member at the level that provides me only with the fabulous handbooks they produce every year.  In those early years, I acquired several other choice plants from this fine institution; I’ll tell you about those another time.

Although experts say Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ tops out at 20 feet, I think our tree is more enthusiastic. It is easily 20 feet right now, and it appears to be growing taller every year. Here’s a shot I took this morning that gives you a sense of the visual impact of the entire tree in the landscape:

Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ Tree

Because the flowers bloom before its leaves emerge, the tree really pops in the early spring landscape. Southeast Piedmont gardeners should know, however, that some springs are kinder than others to this early bloomer. More than once a late freeze has completely zapped the flowers just as they opened, turning bright yellow petals to brown overnight.

But for me, this breathtakingly exquisite tree is worth the gamble. When my 20-foot-tall tree is covered in hundreds of fragrant yellow blossoms, I know spring has sprung.



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