Posts Tagged Red Buckeye

The Payoff

A hybrid of native deciduous azaleas

A hybrid of native deciduous azaleas

Anyone who tells you gardening is easy is lying to you — at least if you garden with any seriousness. It is hard work to plan, plant, water, feed, weed, mulch, prune, harvest, etc. And when you do it on five acres as I do, it is very hard work.

A close-up of the same azalea's flowers

A close-up of the same azalea’s flowers

Ah, but then spring comes, the yard greens, rainbow flower colors burst forth from every corner of the yard as birds and frogs sing love songs — and that’s the payoff. Best of all, when I do things right and the weather gods are kind, my sweat equity pays off bigger every year. Blooming azaleas grow larger and more spectacular, deciduous magnolias hold fragrant blooms aloft to scent the air and lure pollinators. The beauty is almost overwhelming. Seriously, sometimes I just have to sit down and mutter “Wow!”

A view of the north slope garden.

A view of the north slope garden.

I knew that prolonged heavy rains were arriving mid-day here today, so I spent an hour or so this morning wandering around my yard taking photos and paying compliments to all my green charges who repay my efforts so enthusiastically every year.

Frasier magnolia flower buds

Fraser magnolia flower buds

The shots so far are all from the acre of north slope we’ve enclosed within a deer fence. Here my blooming woody beauties grow unmolested.

Rhododendron alabamensis is just beginning to open its flowers.

Rhododendron alabamense is just beginning to open its flowers.

All of my deciduous magnolias are unfurling their leaves and revealing their flower buds. I think the Fraser magnolia may just beat the Ashe magnolia in the first-to-bloom contest.

Magnolia ashei flower bud

Magnolia ashei flower bud

My latest big-leaf magnolia species addition is Magnolia pyramidata. I planted it last March. It is tiny, but so were the others when I planted them some years ago. When I see the small new magnolia just unfurling its leaves, I can look to its magnolia cousins for the payoff a few years of patience will bring.

The key to keeping this new addition happy will be weeding out intruders.

The key to keeping this new addition happy will be weeding out intruders.

I can’t resist offering a few more views from the north slope garden.

Pinxterbloom azalea

Alabama azalea in foreground; pinxterbloom azalea down slope

Ashe magnolia in foreground; Viburnum 'Shasta' in back

Ashe magnolia in foreground; Viburnum ‘Shasta’ in back

New leaves are also lovely in their own right.

New leaves of the deciduous Dawn Redwood

New leaves of the deciduous Dawn Redwood

New leaves of deciduous False Larch

New leaves of deciduous False Larch

The greening of the floodplain forest across our creek.

The greening of the floodplain forest across our creek.

Although I can’t take credit for planting the myriad, multiplying wildflowers that grace the wetland on and adjacent to our five acres, I can take credit for appreciating it, encouraging it, and lavishing it with compliments when it begins its spring display.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to their swamp brethren.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to their swamp brethren.

Cinnamon ferns tower over Atamasco lilies just beginning to bloom.

Cinnamon ferns tower over Atamasco lilies just beginning to bloom.

Lizard's tails emerge over more muddy territory every year. When they bloom, plumes of white dance across the floodplain.

Lizard’s tails emerge over more muddy territory every year. When they bloom, plumes of white dance across the floodplain.

The Mayapple mob is abloom while the Bladdernuts above drop spent flowers on their lobed leaves.

The Mayapple mob is abloom while the Bladdernuts above drop spent flowers on their lobed leaves.

One of my additions to this breathtakingly healthy wetland is a Red Buckeye.

The entire Red Buckeye tree

The entire Red Buckeye tree

A flower-laden branch of the Red Buckeye

A flower-laden branch of the Red Buckeye

This close-up of a Red Buckeye inflorescence  shows the tubular flowers that draw hummingbirds every spring.

This close-up of a Red Buckeye inflorescence shows the tubular flowers that draw hummingbirds every spring.

I took 171 pictures today. Not all of them were great, but even so, I think this is enough for one post. Soon I must update you on the vegetable garden. Much is happening there. And other parts of the yard are also in full, glorious flower. Truly, I am blessed with an embarrassment of botanical riches. But as I count my blessings, I remind myself that I had a lot to do with the beauty that now surrounds me. All the sore muscles, the sweat, the dirt, and yes, the bug bites are all worth this annual payoff — a payoff that grows larger and more wonderful every year.

Eastern Columbines have staged a takeover of the bed beside my greenhouse.

Eastern Columbines have staged a takeover of the bed beside my greenhouse.

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Fall Planting? Consider a smaller native tree.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

Cooler weather is trying to creep in. Soon the persistent clouds will dissipate, replaced by crisp, cooler air and sunshine that warms but doesn’t sear weeders as we attempt to prepare our flowerbeds for their winter’s sleep.

Every experienced Piedmont gardener’s fingers get itchy this time of year. We know that this is the optimal season for planting new trees, shrubs, and many perennials to give them the best chance of flourishing in our yards. With that itch in mind, I thought I’d mention five small native trees that I believe deserve a spot in many Piedmont home landscapes.

I’ve offered tips for planting trees before, but here are a few key points.

  • Our smaller native trees are small because they evolved to be understory trees. They flourish beneath the taller canopy trees such as Tulip Poplars, Oaks, and Hickories, occurring along forest edges, where they are sheltered from searing afternoon sun by the taller canopy trees, but receive some light by being on the edges of clearings. Thus, when you plant your smaller native tree, locate it where it will be shaded from searing afternoon summer sun.
  • Our smaller native trees are forest natives. They will never flourish plunked down in the middle of a suburban lawn all by themselves. If your landscape is too small to plant them beneath canopy trees, consider grouping them with native trees and shrubs that are the same size or smaller. As the group of natives matures, you can add native wildflowers beneath them to create a more diverse and beautiful landscape that will also appeal to native wildlife.
  • Don’t dig a hole barely big enough for the root ball of your new addition, add the tree, and go your merry way. Tree roots need room to travel. A small hole carved into compacted clay soil works just like a flower pot. The roots will go round and round, never escaping the confines of their prison. Such a tree never flourishes. Ideally, your new addition should be sited in a prepared bed that you’ve tilled deeply and improved with compost or other organic materials.
  • Be sure the root ball isn’t below the surface of the surrounding soil. Tree roots need to breathe. If you bury them too deeply, the tree will never flourish. Mulch your new tree with an inch or two of an organic material such as wood chips or leaves. Pine needles are not a good choice.
  • Water your new tree during dry spells throughout the following year, even in winter, if precipitation doesn’t fall. Aim for an inch per week for that first year. Once your native is well-established, it will need less attention.
  • Don’t fertilize your new tree. Even organic fertilizers are too much for the traumatized root systems of new arrivals. Well-prepared soil, mulch, and adequate water are all they need.
  • Don’t spray herbicides near your tree. If the spray drifts onto even the bark of your new addition, your tree can be damaged.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

A Piedmont spring staple

A Piedmont spring staple

Flowering dogwood is native to all of the southeastern US, from the coast to the mountains, including the Piedmont region where I live. It is a magnificent four-season beauty. Spring, of course, covers the trees in a white cloud of long-lasting blooms. Summer brings bright green leaves, a spot of shade, and developing clusters of berries. Fall ripens those berries to red and colors the leaves in shades of maroon and crimson. Winter shows off the blocky fissured bark and the lateral arrangement of its branches, which snow accentuates in winter landscapes.

Many beautiful cultivars of this tree have been developed by horticulturalists. All local nurseries will be well-stocked with myriad choices this time of year. For the best selection, consider buying from a speciality nursery rather than a Big Box Store’s abused-plant holding area. Any difference in price will be well worth your investment, I promise.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Flowers of Redbud signal spring's arrival.

Flowers of Redbud signal spring’s arrival.

Yes, I know the blooms are not red. This confuses all non-Southeasterners when they hear natives talking about our spring Eastern Redbud flowers. I do not know how they got this name. I do know the light purple-pink flowers cover most branches in early spring, a few weeks before the Flowering Dogwoods reach peak bloom. During a rare cool spring, we often get lucky enough to see prolonged Eastern Redbud bloom — long enough to overlap with snowy Flowering Dogwood flowers. So lovely!

Eastern Redbud is another four-season beauty. After its pea-like flowers (a member of the legume plant family) fade, bean-like seed pods develop, maturing from green to dark brown as summer morphs into fall. Distinctive heart-shaped leaves make this an easy tree to identify. They turn a soft gold before dropping with the first cold winds of autumn. Twigs grow in a unique zigzag pattern that is especially noticeable when coated in snow. Horticulturalists have been busy with this species too. I’m especially fond of C. canadensis ‘Forest Pansy.’

Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum)

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

In the Appalachian mountains, Sourwoods are often 50 feet tall. They seem to prosper there, and that is where beekeepers put their hives when they want to create sourwood honey. Here in the Piedmont, Sourwoods are typically smaller, usually not more than 30 feet tall. In our native forests, they often take on contorted shapes as their trunks bend toward holes in the canopy where they can receive sunlight. But they will grow straight, tall, and lovely if you simply site yours where it is sheltered from hot summer sun, but receives good morning sunlight.

Clusters of bell-like pure white flowers adorn the tips of branches in June and July, making this native a great way to extend the blooming period of trees in your landscape. Fall leaf color, which begins earlier for this native than most, is drop-dead gorgeous deep scarlet. Its distinctive deeply furrowed bark, plus its tendency to hold on to the dried seed head clusters until spring, make this native another potential winter interest focal point in your landscape. Taste a green leaf in early summer. They have a wonderful sour tang to them, which I imagine is the source of their common name.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

The three trees previously described are all happier growing on upland slopes, but this native occurs naturally in moist forests, often near floodplains. If you’ve got a low area in your yard that tends to remain moist, Red Buckeye is worth considering. By early April, this beauty begins opening its clusters of scarlet flowers, just in time for the arrival of native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The flowers occur on the ends of branches, so even as the decorative compound leaves unfurl, the flowers remain visible. Most years in my yard, blooming lasts about a month.  Its distinctive fruits — most of us think of them as nuts, although botanically they are considered to be capsules — hang in clusters as fall approaches. Eventually, they crack open to reveal distinctive buckeye fruits. The “nuts” are considered to be good luck charms by some, but they are poisonous. If you have little ones inclined to pick up and taste what they find, this tree is probably not your best option.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei)

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

For gardeners who crave a bit of drama in their native landscapes, I recommend Ashe Magnolia. Sited correctly, this native beauty will flourish, and it is guaranteed to draw admiration from all visitors. This plant is native to cool, moist shady slopes of the western Piedmont and eastern mountains. Some botanists consider it to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), because the leaf size and shape and the flowers are quite similar. But Bigleaf Magnolia is a vastly taller tree. Ashe Magnolia remains much smaller. Its growth habit is almost shrub-like, with a tendency for low-branching limbs, often a bit lop-sided.

So lovely

So lovely

But what it lacks in graceful branching structure, it more than makes up for with its fragrant, enormous flowers and equally large leaves. Those leaves give an almost tropical appearance to this tree’s corner of the landscape, and they turn a beautiful golden yellow before dropping to carpet the ground. This species also blooms when its young. Mine produced its first flowers only two years after I planted a tiny twig of a bare-rooted specimen that I purchased.

If you want to try this native, you’ll need a shady, moist spot with rich organic soil. Pick a low spot in your yard and improve the soil by creating a tilled bed full of compost. Be sure the spot receives little to no afternoon summer sun, but does receive good morning light. If you can do this, your rewards will be spectacular flowers and leaves unlike any other native in your landscape. I unabashedly adore Ashe Magnolia.

Get planting!

Soon I’ll offer some suggestions for native shrubs you should consider adding to your landscape this fall. Until then, take a walk around your yard with an eye to where you can tuck in some well-adapted natives to enhance your landscape. Then visit the local fall plant sales that abound at the many public gardens and nurseries in our region. I am confident that you’ll never regret going native.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

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Ephemeral Explosions

Bloodroot army on the move

Bloodroot army on the move

They are here — the spring ephemerals — our native spring wildflowers that pop out of the forest floor, bloom, set fruit, then vanish as the forest canopy leafs out above them.

Judging by the features of my landscape and the natives that were still on it when I moved in, I suspect that most of the really lovely native ephemerals once thrived on my land — trout lilies, hepaticas, spring beauties. Two species persist. Actually, they thrive. Consider the impressive spread of bloodroots in the above photo. That’s just a small subsection of the hill overlooking my creek that they cover annually.

They brighten this neglected bit of landscape every spring.

They brighten this neglected bit of landscape every spring.

In the 25 years I’ve lived here, I would estimate that my bloodroot population has quadrupled in size, with no help from me, I might add. I’ve always wanted to clean up this boulder-covered slope, remove all the invasive plants, add some additional wildflower species. But, so far, I haven’t managed to do so. Luckily for me, the bloodroots don’t seem to mind that I’ve neglected them. I am treated to their glorious, pure white, many-petaled flowers for a week or two every spring.

The flowers fully opened about an hour later when the sun grew stronger.

The flowers fully opened about an hour later when the sun grew stronger.

Looking up at them from the bottom of the hill this morning, I could easily imagine them as an invading army of fairies, the still unfurled leaves as shields protecting the flower warriors.

No corner of the hill escapes the ephemeral invasion.

No corner of the hill escapes the ephemeral invasion.

And the best news, of course, is that these wildflowers are so poisonous that the deer never even nibble on them. Native Americans used the red roots for dyes and as medicines, but I never touch them without gloved hands. I did move a few of these to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope two years ago. They have adapted well, expanding their numbers. As you can see in the photo below, I actually take care of this group, weeding and mulching the patch every year.

Pampered bloodroots.

Pampered bloodroots.

Down on the floodplain, another horde of spring ephemerals rules — mayapples.

Mayapples on the march!

Mayapples on the march!

While bloodroots occur naturally on rocky, cool slopes, mayapples are inhabitants of wetlands. They welcome intermittent floods, spreading their two-leaved umbrellas in wide swaths in wetlands not overtaken by invasive exotic plant species that outcompete these petite beauties.

The first year we moved to this five-acre patch of piedmont landscape, I spied a large group of mayapples thriving on the other side of the creek that serves as the eastern boundary of our property. No mayapples lived on my land, probably because the previous owner seemed to have treated the floodplain as pasture.

I love the variegation on their leaves.

I love the variegation on their leaves.

So I liberated a few of these beauties and planted them on the upper reaches of our south-facing active floodplain. They only get submerged during major floods, but the mucky soil remains moist most of the year. I think perhaps they like it there.

The closer you approach, the lovelier they appear.

The closer you approach, the lovelier they appear.

I imagine my large patch of miniature umbrellas as a fairy recreation area. It looks ideal for fairy picnics, or perhaps a nice nap beneath the shade of these sturdy leaves. Eventually, a single white flower will appear in the notch between the two leaves. But not just yet.

The leaves are surprisingly thick between two fingers, and very smooth.

The leaves are surprisingly thick between two fingers, and very smooth.

The single flowers produce a little green fruit that someone decided looked apple-like. I’ve read that one can make a tart jam from the fruits, and that they are a favorite meal of turtles. But this is the only part of a mayapple that is not poisonous. Like the bloodroots on the hill, mayapples multiply unimpeded because the deer do not eat them. One year sometime back, a deer did eat about half of my patch. I always wondered if it staggered off somewhere and died, because no one came back to finish the rest, and they haven’t been nibbled on since.

Both bloodroots and mayapples are good reminders that beauty can be deadly. By all means, seek out and admire these spring ephemeral wildflowers during their brief moments in the sun. But don’t touch, and never nibble. They thrive because these hordes are well-armed indeed.

Hummingbird Alert!

Hummingbird Alert!

This is a note to my fellow southeastern piedmont dwellers. If you feed the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, please put out your feeders now. As my Red Buckeye demonstrates above, the native flowers the early-arriving males depend on are two weeks behind schedule. Nevertheless, the hummingbirds are arriving at their usual time — now! Until the flowers catch up, these winged jewels of our summer skies need our help. Thanks!

 

 

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Open for business

Ready for occupants

Ready for occupants

As predicted, the warm temperatures arrived. Then they went directly to summer-hot temperatures. This week, we are in the 80s, which is too hot, considering that the canopy trees were mostly not even blooming yet. Forget about leaves. No shade. At all. Hot, hot, hot!

Now, of course, everything is exploding simultaneously. Pollen clouds haze the air, tree buds swell visibly, and the critters have all moved into full-out courtship mode. Toads trill from twilight to dawn. Bird song sweetens the air, along with the perfume of deciduous magnolias. Grass needs mowing. Ticks and mosquitoes lurk everywhere, hungry for blood. Ah, springtime in the southeastern piedmont.

I have managed to take a few pictures, but the plants and critters are moving so fast now that I’m having trouble keeping up. The vegetable garden, of course, has taken priority. My beautiful bed of greens that had been huddled under a garden cloth tent for warmth were suddenly too warm in there. But the sun is now too strong for them. Wonder Spouse devised a clever fix. He cut the fabric tent and shaped it into a canopy that protects the lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens from direct noon-day sun, but allows them access to more gentle angled light and better access to passing rains.

Here’s what the bed looked like last Friday:

Greens thrive beneath their canopy of garden cloth.

Greens thrive beneath their canopy of garden cloth.

Here’s a closer view, so you can more easily see the plants:

They've grown much larger since this shot was taken.

They’ve grown much larger since this shot was taken.

Now the greens are large enough for single-leaf harvesting. Instead of waiting for greens to fill out as heads, I harvest individual leaves as they attain salad size. I’ll be picking greens for our first home-grown salad tomorrow morning as the sun comes up. Veggies and herbs are at their harvestable best first thing in the morning before the sun has begun to melt them. I can just about taste those tender sweet greens now…

Meanwhile in the greenhouse, the summer veggies, flowers, and herbs are well germinated and growing strongly. The tomatoes and peppers will need to graduate to larger pots in the next few days. The basils and flowers will take a little longer.

Tomato and pepper seedlings in the greenhouse.

Tomato and pepper seedlings in the greenhouse.

Tiny basil and marigold seedlings will need another week or so to reach transplanting size.

Tiny basil and marigold seedlings will need another week or so to reach transplanting size.

Since my last update, I have also direct-sowed into the garden beds several varieties of carrots and two of beets. I haven’t seen any signs of them yet, but it’s only just now been about a week. I’m hoping that this current bout of summer-like heat will not prevent these cool-weather veggies from germinating well. After this Friday, our temperatures are predicted to return to normal, so I’m hoping the spring garden can hang on until the cooler spring temperatures return. Spring vegetable gardening is always a gamble here. The summer garden is easier. You can almost always count on the weather turning hot enough for tomatoes and peppers to thrive.

Of course, much more is going on all over the yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse helped me re-activate our front water feature:

Clean water awaits the inevitable arrival of breeding amphibians.

Clean water awaits the inevitable arrival of breeding amphibians.

The pitcher plants in two of the pots are not as robust this year. I allowed far too many cardinal flowers to seed into the pots with the pitcher plants, where they proceeded to outcompete the pitchers. I spent several days digging out several dozen cardinal flowers in the hopes of re-invigorating the pitchers. Now it’s a waiting game to see if they can recover.

So far, only one flower bud (foreground) has appeared on my pitcher plants. I can only hope for more again next year.

So far, only one flower bud (foreground) has appeared on my pitcher plants. I can only hope for more again next year.

The trees are blooming about three weeks later than they did last year. Native redbuds are just opening in my yard:

Cercis canadensis flowers are just starting to show up.

Cercis canadensis flowers are just starting to show up.

And my Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is only now pushing out flower buds. Ditto for my Eastern Columbines. Both of these natives are usually open by the beginning of April, just in time for the arrival of Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating up from their southern winter homes. I hadn’t seen any hummers, but judging by the arrival of my summer warblers, I decided to put out a feeder last Friday. Several hummingbirds were enjoying the feeder by the next morning, and I’ve seen them on it often since. Without their native flowers, they really need the sugar water I offer to help them recuperate from their long migration.

Red buckeye flowers will probably need another week to open for business, despite the heat wave.

Red buckeye flowers will probably need another week to open for business, despite the heat wave.

My native coral honeysuckle is usually blooming by now, too. This year, the one on my trellis is only just beginning to produce flower buds. The one draped over a tree stump near the creek is slightly further along. It’s buds at least show color.

These buds have probably opened in today's absurd heat. I'm sure the hummers are happy to see them.

These buds have probably opened in today’s absurd heat. I’m sure the hummers are happy to see them.

The ferns are finally showing signs of life. Here’s a group of naturally occurring Cinnamon Ferns that thrive in my wetland:

I always worry until the fiddleheads unfurl. The deer are very hungry right now.

I always worry until the fiddleheads unfurl. The deer are very hungry right now.

Inside my deer fence, my Christmas Ferns are also showing new growth:

Fiddleheads just shout "Spring!"

Fiddleheads just shout “Spring!”

I can’t close today’s post without mentioning the currently blooming deciduous magnolias. Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had a record extended blooming period of six weeks for me. The cool weather kept the flowers fresh, and the cold snaps only browned a few buds. Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ did not fare as well. When the heat hit it, all the buds opened at once, looked gorgeous for about two days, and now most of the petals have already fallen to the ground, surrendering to summer-like early April heat. But when they were fresh they were lovely.

Here’s the tree last Friday:

The tree is 25 feet tall now, so it's hard to get all of it in a shot that is still close enough to show off the flowers.

The tree is 25 feet tall now, so it’s hard to get all of it in a shot that is still close enough to show off the flowers.

Here’s a close-up of the canary-yellow blossoms just as they were opening a few days ago:

These flowers don't lose color in the heat. They just give up and drop their petals.

These flowers don’t lose color in the heat. They just give up and drop their petals.

As is always the case, my Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ is blooming about a week behind Butterflies. Actually, a bit less than a week this year, likely due to our 85-degree day today. Elizabeth is taller than Butterflies. My 17-18-year-old specimen is about 50 feet now, and when the flowers open, the effect is jaw-dropping. Here she is from a distance this morning. I had to stand fairly far back to get all of her in one shot:

Magnolia acuminata 'Elizabeth' this morning.

Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ this morning.

Then I took a few steps closer and tried for a shot with as much of the tree in it as possible:

A little closer view of Elizabeth.

A little closer view of Elizabeth.

And, finally, here are a few branches closer up, so that you can see the gorgeous flowers.

Elizabeth's just-opening blossoms this morning.

Elizabeth’s just-opening blossoms this morning.

Elizabeth’s flowers are a much paler yellow than those of Butterflies, and under harsh sunlight, they fade to parchment white. The effect is lovely and more subtle than Butterflies. The flowers of both trees emit a perfume so strong that deep inhalation just about knocks me over. On a spring breeze, I can smell their fragrance across half of my five-acre yard.

There’s more, of course, what with everything exploding simultaneously in the heat. I’ll try to do a better job of keeping you posted here, but there’s just so gosh darn much to do out there. Weeds, for example. They have exploded along with all the invited plants.

But I’m not complaining. Hard work is part of the therapy of gardening. I’ll feel downright righteous when I sit down tomorrow evening to dine on our first garden salad of the year. It really is true, you know. The food does taste better when you grow it yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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While they sleep …

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.

The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.

The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.

But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.

The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.

The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.

A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.

This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.

Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.

The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.

Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.

Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.

But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.

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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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Current Bloomers

Iris ‘Batik’

This accelerated spring — with the occasional blasts of arctic air thrown in for fun — has made it difficult for me to keep up with everything blooming in my yard. I’ve missed showing you quite a few deciduous azaleas, for example, but I showed them all to you last year, when they politely bloomed mostly one at a time, so search on deciduous azaleas within this blog if you want to see what they look like.

We went down to 32 degrees at my house this morning. Last week, we dove to 28. Most of the flowers survived, but I am sad to say that my Magnolia ashei was most definitely a casualty this year.

Current bloomers that have weathered the weather include:

Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Sweet Kate.’Here’s what the entire plant looked like this morning, where it flourishes beside our little front water feature:

And here’s a closer view so you can better appreciate her flowers:

The chartreuse foliage does a great job of accentuating the purple flowers.

My umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) is blooming thirty feet up at the top of the tree, but I couldn’t get a shot of the open flower. I settled for a nearly open bud:

When fully leafed out, this plant does provide excellent shelter from sudden rain storms.

The fringe trees — both native and Chinese varieties — are at peak bloom right now. Here’s the top of the native tree:

And here’s a close view of part of the Chinese species:

The wetland at the edge of my property is still full of blooming Jack-in-the-Pulpits, and a few Atamasco lilies still bloom too. The spore-producing fronds of the Cinnamon Ferns that give them their common name are just beginning to fade, as you can see here:

The Red Buckeyes are still blooming, although some of the flower clusters are showing signs of seed production.

Abundant and terrifyingly vigorous poison ivy is everywhere. Here’s a stem showing flower buds about to open:

Makes me feel itchy just looking at the stuff, so I think I’ll close for now with the one deciduous azalea currently about to reach peak bloom in our north-facing garden: Rhododendron flammeum ‘Scarlet Ibis.’ It’s already taller than me. In a few more years, this one in bloom will be so magnificent that it may stop traffic.

Despite the ups and downs of our temperatures, I am making progress in the vegetable garden. I’ll update you soon.

My advice to all this year: Walk outside as often as you can if you want to be sure you see every new blooming plant before it starts and finishes. Blink twice this year, and you’ve missed half the show.

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