Posts Tagged wildflower

For Late-Season Blooms, Think Ironweed

Blooming started getting enthusiastic in late August.

Blooming became enthusiastic in late August.

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) has always been a volunteer wildflower on my floodplain. That’s the native habitat for this passionately purple wildflower. This year when we built a new pollinator flower bed, I had an excuse to plant more ironweed. New York Ironweed tops out between five to eight feet, but I decided to try a taller species to plant behind some of the other flowers I added. I chose Vernonia gigantea ‘Purple Pillar.’

In its first year, Purple Pillar topped out right around five feet.

In its first year, Purple Pillar topped out right around five feet.

Purple Pillar is supposed to reach heights of nine to ten feet, but in its first year for me, it achieved about half that — not bad at all for a late-spring-planted newbie in a new flower bed. I planted two specimens; both bloomed profusely, attracting a wide array of native pollinators, including these:

Ironweed species native to my region of the southeastern US piedmont all bloom in late summer/early fall. Purple Pillars can theoretically bloom through October, but mine shifted to seed production by late September. I’m hoping that next year the plants will be larger and bloom even longer.

Tightly closed flower buds in late June.

Tightly closed flower buds in late June.

I didn’t do any formal record-keeping, but from my photos and my observations, it seemed to me that my ironweeds attracted a wider diversity of insects/arachnids than my enormously floriferous Joe Pye Weeds. Between these two species, I think just about every butterfly in my neighborhood found my new pollinator bed.

Top of Purple Pillars in late August.

Top of Purple Pillars in late August.

Although this wildflower naturally occurs in moist places, it is highly adaptable both in its moisture and light requirements. It will thrive in a typical flower bed. I pampered all my plants in my new pollinator bed with extra water this year, because they were just getting established. Next year, I’m hoping they will grow larger with no additional water from me — unless we are plagued with significant drought, of course. I’m certainly not going to let these beauties die from extreme weather conditions if I can prevent it.

A close view of an ironweed bloom in late August.

A close view of an ironweed bloom in late August.

At a distance or up close, covered in butterflies or standing solo, ironweeds are a native perennial wildflower that every piedmont gardener should grow. If you don’t have this species in your garden yet, plan on adding some next spring. You — and your local pollinators — will be glad you did.

 

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Worth the Wait: Milkweed Magic

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

In the southeastern US piedmont region where I live, I am happy to report that more and more homeowners are adding native pollinator gardens to their landscapes. By providing sources of pollen, nectar, and leaves of plants that native bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, etc. rely on, we are all helping to replace at least some of the native ecosystems obliterated by urbanization that once fed these insects. As Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, Bringing Nature Home, if we lose our native pollinators and other insects, we also lose the native wildlife that eats these insects — birds, bats, frogs, etc.

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

A freshly emerged Monarch Butterfly

One of the poster-insects for the plight of our native pollinators is the Monarch Butterfly. Reports seem to vary every year recently regarding the status of this beautiful species, but it seems clear that we should all continue to add to our landscapes the native food plants that this butterfly relies on: milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata)

Milkweeds are a test of patience for gardeners. New transplants don’t usually bloom prolifically the first year after planting. These plants spend that first year establishing healthy root systems. But by their third year in your garden, you will agree that milkweeds are worth the wait — for the beauty of their prolonged flowering, for their fat, brown pods from which seeds escape on silken parachutes, and for the diversity of pollinators that dine on their flowers, and the Monarch Butterfly caterpillars that devour the plants.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

A honeybee enjoying Swamp Milkweed blooms.

For gardeners wondering which species of milkweed to try in their gardens, I recommend three options. These are the easiest to grow, and also the most readily available in the trade.

  • Swamp Milkweed (A. incarnata) is native to moist areas and can handle some shade. However, it thrives in standard garden beds, as long as you water it during droughts, and perhaps a bit extra during its first year as it is establishing. In return, you will get three-foot-tall plants covered in clusters of pink flowers. There’s also a white-blooming variety of this species, but I think the pink forms are much lovelier. A well-established plant will bloom for at least a month, and will be visited dawn to dusk by happy pollinators. If you’re lucky, these visitors will include some Monarch butterflies.
Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

Honeybees on Butterfly Weed

  • Butterfly Weed (A. tuberosa) is native to hot, sunny hillsides. It’s not unusual to see it growing on unmowed road banks in my region. The trick to this species that produces bright orange flowers is excellent drainage. If it sits for long in too-moist soil, it will forsake you. The plants I’ve added grow bigger every year, producing more and more flowering branches literally abuzz with happy pollinators.
Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

Common Milkweed (A. syriaca)

  • Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) thrives in moist, sunny places. It is not as showy as the first two species above, but it seems to be the favorite food plant of Monarch Butterfly caterpillars, perhaps because it is the most commonly occurring milkweed species on patches of undeveloped land. I tucked mine toward the back of a flower bed, where they can grow tall while waiting for Monarchs to find them. I planted mine in my boulder bed, and they haven’t bloomed for me, possibly because they don’t get quite enough sun. But they grow well, producing tall, green plants, and last year Monarch caterpillars ate them literally to the ground. However, the plants returned in greater numbers this year, which is when I realized that this species spreads via running rhizomes. As Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manger at the North Carolina Botanical Garden told me, you plant this species once, and you will never need to plant it again, because of its ability to spread itself via rhizomes.

Milkweed Pests

Milkweeds are slow to emerge in spring, far later than many other native perennials. But once they appear, they grow quickly, and soon the pollinator visits begin. Two pests will also eventually show up.

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Oleander aphids on Common Milkweed

Bright orange Oleander aphids inevitably appear on every milkweed species I grow, but they seem to favor Common Milkweed. So-called because they also feed on oleanders, these aphids are orange to warn potential predators that they are poisonous, having ingested the toxins in milkweed that cause deer, rabbits, and other plant-eaters to pass them by. These aphid infestations can get pretty ugly. I control mine by donning garden gloves and simultaneously spraying the stems with a strong jet of water while rubbing off the aphids with my fingers. Aphids are poor climbers; once knocked down by the water, they have trouble getting back up the stems.

A Milkweed bug

A Milkweed bug

Milkweed bugs usually show up eventually on some of my milkweeds. These can be destructive to developing seed pods, because they suck out the nutrients in the pods, thereby stunting them. If they get out of hand on my plants, with my gloves on, I pick them off and drop them in a jar of soapy water, where they quickly die. Most years, I never see very many of these insects, which makes me wonder if some bird eats them despite their possible toxicity.

A Few Other Milkweed Species

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Snowberry Clearwing moth visiting flowers of Whorled Milkweed.

Being a somewhat obsessive gardener, if I like a genus of native plants, I’ll often try to grow as many different species as I can. Thus, I grow a few additional species of milkweed.  This is the second year for my Whorled Milkweed (A. verticillata). Until it blooms, you wouldn’t even believe it’s a milkweed. That’s how un-milkweed-like its leaves look, at least to me. But its small white clusters of flowers are unmistakably milkweed blooms, and this year the plant has formed a lovely small shrubby plant that continues to produce flowers popular with an array of pollinators.

Without the flowers, I'd never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Without the flowers, I’d never guess the identity of Whorled Milkweed.

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

Red Milkweed (A. rubra)

The flowers of Red Milkweed are similar to those of Swamp Milkweed, and they share a preference for the same growing conditions. I grow mine in a pot that sits in my summer water feature. It blooms in early spring, but doesn’t re-bloom.

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed (A. lanceolata)

Fewflower Milkweed is native to swampy parts of the coastal plain region up and down the eastern coast of the US. I planted this in one of my summer water feature pots last year, but it didn’t bloom. But this year, beginning about two weeks ago and still going strong, the plant began to produce clusters of peachy-orange flowers. The color is not as in-your-face as that of Butterfly Weed flowers, but as the common name implies, each flower cluster contains a relatively small number of flowers. They are as popular with pollinators as the other milkweed species, but probably not a practical choice for most piedmont gardeners.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

Swamp Milkweed pods releasing their seeds.

I think native milkweeds should be on every gardener’s list of must-have perennials. For an investment of some patience on your part, you will be rewarded with prolonged, colorful blooms visited by swarms of bees and butterflies. And if you’re really lucky, perhaps you’ll get the chance to watch a Monarch caterpillar transform into a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, as I did last year.

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Chrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly in development

Fall is a great time to plant milkweeds in your garden, and you can get the three species I suggested — plus perhaps a few more — at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale next month. I’ll be there on Member’s Night to get first crack at all the wonderful plants that will be offered. I hope I’ll see you there!

 

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Ode to Joe

Everybody loves Joe Pye Weed.

Everybody loves Joe Pye Weed.

My corner of southeastern US Piedmont has been blessed with steady — but not excessive — rainfall all summer this year. I cannot remember a growing season like this one. All the plants — weeds included — have responded with enthusiasm. And so have the animals, including most every native pollinator — and pollinator predator — that one expects to see in my region.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

This growing season will be remembered by me as the summer of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. Never have more of these beauties adorned every blooming plant in my yard, animating the landscape with their slow, drifting flights from flower to flower, often bumping into me as I stood nearby, camera in hand, trying to capture their wondrous abundance. Many flowers have attracted these butterflies, but of all my plants, my healthy stand of native wildflower, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), deserves special recognition for its power to attract, not only Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, but also just about every other native pollinator in the neighborhood.

Ailanthus Webworm Moths delighting in Joe's flowers.

Ailanthus Webworm Moths delighting in Joe’s flowers.

Truly, it has been a perpetual pollinator party on the Joe Pye Weed since it started blooming over a month ago. And it is still blooming! I cannot recommend this native wildflower enough for anyone planting — or adding to — a pollinator garden bed. It’s a can’t-miss pollinator magnet. For those of you interested in planting for native birds, Joe Pye Weed is an excellent choice. Insect-eating birds will delight in harvesting a few pollinators as they work Joe’s flowers. And when the pink flower heads ripen to tan-brown seed heads, seed-eating birds like our native Goldfinches will happily dine on the seeds.

A Common Buckeye visiting Joe's flowers.

A Common Buckeye visiting Joe’s flowers.

This native wildflower naturally occurs along creeks and wetland areas, but it adapts with no difficulty to garden beds, as long as you water it a bit during dry spells. My clump has grown larger every year without much supplemental water at all. The species can top out at about 6 feet, which might be a bit tall for some landscapes, but it is easy to find shorter cultivars at local nurseries that stop at three or four feet, and I’ve found that if you cut the growing stalks of the tall form by about half in early summer, they will bloom at about four feet instead of six, making them less floppy after summer thunderstorms.

This Chinese Praying Mantis remained stationed on this clump of Joe Pye Weed for most of a week, harvesting unwary pollinators.

This Chinese Praying Mantis remained stationed on this clump of Joe Pye Weed for most of a week, harvesting unwary pollinators.

Joe Pye Weed is also not picky about the amount of sunlight it needs. It will bloom a bit more prolifically in full sun, but I’ve got stands of it in shady spots in my yard, and the flowers on those plants are almost as abundant — and also enjoyed by numerous pollinators.

I confess I have spent perhaps too much time this summer sitting in front of the Joe Pye Weed in my new pollinator bed (more about that soon). The constant dance of pollinators drifting in and out, the drama of predators snagging unwary insects, the kaleidoscopic colors — it’s all very hypnotic — and soothing.

A Green Anole perched on a Joe Pye Weed leaf, waiting to grab whatever drifts by.

A Green Anole perched on a Joe Pye Weed leaf, waiting to grab whatever drifts by.

We are fast approaching the optimal season for planting perennials, shrubs, and trees in our region. Fall is for planting, as we say in these parts, because the air is cool but not icy, so roots can establish thoroughly before plants go into winter sleep, enhancing their vigor and drought resistance when the spring growing season arrives. If you are planning to plant — or add to — a pollinator- and/or bird-friendly garden this fall, be sure that Joe Pye Weed is part of your plan, whether it be the straight species, or one of the many fine cultivars available.

An American Lady delicately sips a Joe Pye Weed flower.

An American Lady delicately sips a Joe Pye Weed flower.

There’s no better place to purchase all the native plants you need for your upcoming fall-planting projects than at the Fall Plant Sale at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. This year, Members’ Night is Friday, September 23, and the sale is open to the general public on Saturday morning, September 24. Not only do members get first dibs on the vast array of natives offered at this sale, they also get a 10% discount on their purchases. And for you procrastinators out there, you can join at the door on Members’ Night. I encourage all the native plant lovers within driving distance of Chapel Hill to put this don’t-miss plant-buying party on your calendars now. And be sure to pick up some Joe Pye Weed, so your pollinators can party on it next growing season.

Joe Pye Weeds -- and friends -- in my new pollinator bed

Joe Pye Weeds — and friends — in my new pollinator bed.

 

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Glory in the Morning

A native Redbud flower

A native Redbud flower

My rain gauge recorded 1.77 inches of rain from yesterday afternoon until early this morning. The clouds parted by about 10:00 a.m., leaving clean air (no pollen!), moist ground, and almost visibly growing plants. A walk with the camera seemed essential.

Vegetables

The spring garden is growing well. We’ve been dry, so I’ve been watering lettuces, broccoli, onions, and potatoes to try to keep them growing, but I could see they weren’t as happy as they could be. Of course, some of that may have been because their coating of yellow-green pine pollen made them all look a bit sickly. But this morning, freshly washed, vibrant veggies greeted me.

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes I sowed last week have all germinated. Most of the peppers have too. The Scotch Bonnet pepper seeds I’m growing for a friend are still ungerminated, but they are notoriously slow, so I’m not worried yet.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

I watered the seedlings with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed extract yesterday to help them grow enthusiastically.

Wildflowers

The spring ephemerals have been coming and going fast, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather. Last night’s rain denuded all the still-blooming bloodroots, revealing erect seed capsules, standing like soldiers beneath the great canopy trees. The mayapples are full of flower buds, and the Atamasco lilies were putting up flower buds.

Blooming Shrubs and Trees — with Butterflies!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are literally everywhere, floating at all levels, from treetops to lawn. It is especially wonderful to see after last year’s near-absence of all butterflies. Today I saw my first Spicebush Swallowtail, but it refused to pose for me. There were several other new, uncooperative species, and a gossamer-winged dragonfly that I suspect was newly emerged. The flowers were more cooperative photographic subjects, although a gusty wind (that re-awakened the pollen) did create some challenges.

Despite the rain, Wonder Spouse and I did manage to get our front water feature going for the new season. We anticipate that the local frogs and toads that lay eggs in it every year should arrive as soon as this latest cool spell has passed. The plants in the pots look a bit bare at the moment, but the pitcher plants and the new Venus Flytrap in them have flower buds, and the moisture-loving milkweeds are growing quickly. I think all will come together for the plants in a month or so.

Now it's springtime!

Now it’s springtime!

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been reported in my area, but I haven’t seen or heard one yet. Just in case, the feeder full of sugar water is in its usual spot. Soon these flying jewels will join the increasingly evident wildlife to enjoy the bounty of blooms that signal Spring’s arrival on our five acres.

Happy Spring, everyone!

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Fire Pink Hits the Bigtime!

A close-up of the star.

A close-up of the star.

Fire Pinks have always been one of my favorite native wildflowers. I’m lucky enough to have a small patch spontaneously maintain itself on a sunny hill in my back yard.  I don’t have to do anything but appreciate them every year when they bloom, which in my yard, is usually in late May. I wrote about my Fire Pinks in a post here a few years back.

I’m mentioning this lovely wildflower today — and yes, I know it’s red, not pink (see my earlier post for an explanation) — because it has just been named the 2015 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year. Here’s an excerpt from the news release I just received:

Chapel Hill – Fire-pink (Silene virginica), one of the most stunning native perennials of the eastern United States, has been named the 2015 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year by the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) and the Garden Club of North Carolina, Inc.

……

For a Wildflower of the Year brochure and packet of fire-pink seeds, send a stamped, self-addressed, business envelope with attention to NCWFOY 2015 to North Carolina Botanical Garden, UNC–Chapel Hill, CB 3375, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3375.

The NCBG and the Garden Club of North Carolina work together to promote the use of native plants in home gardens. Each year since 1982, a showy, native perennial has been chosen and seeds of that wildflower are distributed to interested gardeners. To view a list of the past 33 North Carolina Wildflowers of the Year, visit the Garden’s website: ncbg.unc.edu/north-carolina-wildflower-of-the-year

We’re talking free seeds, people. All you need to supply is a stamped, self-addressed business envelope. Once you’ve established this wildflower in your garden, I predict it will stay with you through the years without any additional work on your part. And, no, I’ve never noticed the deer eating it. There’s so much to eat during its bloom period, I doubt deer would ever bother with something so relatively small.

I think this is a wonderful way to expose more gardeners to some of our most lovely native wildflowers. Thanks to the NC Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of North Carolina for keeping this successful program going for so many years!

Easy and gorgeous -- what's not to love?

Easy and gorgeous — what’s not to love?

 

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A Bird in the Hand

Ripe fruits of Solomon's Plume

Ripe fruits of Solomon’s Plume

Last week was too hot here, the heat made worse by the fact that most of the summer was unusually mild. Dust clouds rose with the slightest disturbance, lingering long in humid, stagnant air. It was not a week conducive to gardening.

Finally this past Sunday, cooler weather began to creep in, accompanied by clouds that dimmed what had been searing sun. Wonder Spouse immediately charged outdoors to catch up on tasks delayed by the heat, leaving our garage door open as he moved back and forth fetching tools, wheelbarrows, and assorted other necessities. His tasks did not require a second pair of hands, so I grabbed my camera and began acquainting myself with the latest developments on our five-acre jungle.

Fruits of Halesia diptera will turn light brown when they're fully ripe.

Fruits of Halesia diptera will turn light brown when they’re fully ripe.

Fruit — that was the takeaway message from this walk. Most plants are well into fruit/seed production, clearly aware of dwindling daylight and down-trending temperatures. The Solomon’s Plumes I added to a wildflower bed on the north side of my yard all made numerous berries this year, as you can see in the photo above. The empty stems you see likely tell the tale of a hungry bird or other critter sampling these bright red berries. I think they look especially festive mingling with the evergreen Christmas fern — another native to our region.

Pokeberry fruits

Pokeweed fruits

Giant magenta stalks of Pokeweed — easily 8 feet tall — bend from the weight of purple-black clusters of ripe berries. These are favorites with many of the avian inhabitants of my yard, as evidenced by purple-tinged splats of bird excrement deposited on my walks and decks.

Red Buckeye fruits

Red Buckeye fruits

Branches of the large Red Buckeye on our floodplain are touching the ground, bent from the weight of nearly ripe fruits. Soon the husks will split and the shiny nut-like fruits will tumble to the ground. These nuts are poisonous to people, but some wild inhabitant makes them disappear every year.

Hammocksweet Azalea

Hammocksweet Azalea

The greatest surprise during my walkabout was my Hammocksweet Azalea — in full, overpoweringly fragrant bloom at the base of my north-facing garden, close to the creek. I sited it there, because this deciduous azalea — the last to bloom for me every year — is native to wetland environments. The flowers are pure white, without a hint of ivory, and their fragrance is knock-your-socks-off sweet. If it were any closer to my house, I think the fragrance might be overpowering, especially as this shrub continues to grow.

Greenhead Coneflower

Green-Head Coneflower

September is the month that many large native yellow composite wildflowers adorn every corner of my yard, and many roadsides. I added Green-Head Coneflower to the mix, because I love the prominent seed heads it forms, as do the seed-eating birds that dwell nearby.

Mixed nasturtiums mingle and multiply

Mixed nasturtiums mingle and multiply

My vegetable garden is mostly done for the year. A few peppers linger, and some broccoli plants are struggling to grow beneath the shelter of their Reemay tent. Many of the beds are packed with fresh green sprouts of crimson clover, my winter cover crop of choice. But one bed is dominated by the lovely mix of nasturtiums above. Unimpressed by heat, drought, deluges, or anything else as far as I can tell, they bloom continuously, spreading wandering shoots in all directions, even mingling a bit with adjacent beds full of crimson clover. Their gentle rose-like scent is nothing short of heavenly.

I encountered a bit of wildlife as I made my way around my yard. I think perhaps they’d been hunkering down during the heat wave too. Like me, they were out and about in force during my morning walk. Bird song filled the air. Many toads greeted me in all parts of the yard. I’m always happy to see these insect-eaters. A Green Anole rushed out of a potted plant when I began watering it. It was bright green to blend with the vegetation, and if it hadn’t objected to being watered, I likely would have never noticed it. Five-lined skinks skittered across open ground and up and down trees. A Black Racer darted beneath an aster blooming by my front deck when I got too close; it had been trying to warm itself in the cloud-dimmed sun.

But the highlight of the day came after I had put up my camera and gone back outside to gather some tools in the garage. A frantic bird fluttered at the back windows, too confused to realize that its way out was the other way, through the open garage door.  It was an Eastern Phoebe, a small flycatcher common to my yard, thanks to the woodland creek — its preferred habitat — that borders our land.

I have spent many happy hours watching this beauty hunt from my back deck. Its keen eyes watch for flying insects. When it spots one, it leaps into the air, grabbing the bug on the wing, then returning to its perch to watch for more tidbits. Its aerial acrobatics are impressive, and its squeaky call, sounding more like a child’s squeeze doll than a bird, let’s me know it’s on bug patrol.

So when I discovered this distraught Eastern Phoebe desperately trying to escape our garage, I leapt into action. First, I opened all the other doors. Often this is enough to help a trapped bird find its way out. But this little one was unwilling to venture from the high window at the back of the garage. I next tried using a light-weight rake to reach up toward the bird, in the hopes that it would hop on and let me carry it out. This works surprisingly well with the occasional discombobulated hummingbird.

But not so for this Eastern Phoebe. Instead, it fluttered down the back wall, settling on a piece of plywood leaning against the wall, and mostly hidden by another, taller piece of plywood. I did the only thing I could think of. I quietly asked the little bird if it would allow me to pick it up with my hand and carry it to safety. It didn’t move, probably exhausted from its fruitless escape efforts. I chose to interpret its stillness as permission, gently reaching behind the plywood.

The poor, exhausted creature didn’t even struggle in my gentle grasp. I quietly thanked it for its cooperation as I carried it toward the front of the garage. I could feel its heartbeat thrumming through my fingers, otherwise feeling no movement. But as soon as we were clear of the garage, the soft brown bug hunter in my hand began to push against my grasp. I opened my palm and it immediately flew high into a nearby tree, apparently none the worse for its misadventure.

I closed all the garage doors to prevent further accidents, still feeling the heartbeat of that beautiful wild creature in my hand. Not for the first time, it occurred to me how blessed I am to live among the wild ones on our five acres of green chaos. So many people live their entire lives without ever feeling what it’s like to hold a bird in the hand.

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All Signs Point to Spring

birdbath

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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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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August Monkeys on my Floodplain

Mimulus alatus

Mimulus alatus

Well, Monkeyflowers, anyway. To be precise, Winged Monkeyflowers (Mimulus alatus). This native perennial wildflower has been showing up here and there on my active floodplain ever since we started tending this yard in 1989. But this year’s uncharacteristically wet summer resulted in a veritable explosion of violet blossoms. The yellow and white throat patch gives the flowers an orchid-like appearance. Very showy, in my opinion, for a wildflower.

The winged aspect refers to the small wings on the petioles (leaf stems), bits of tissue that flare out on either side of the stems, a bit like wings — at least to the eyes of the botanist who named this flower.

If you zoom in on the photo by clicking on it, you can just make out the wings on the petioles.

If you zoom in on the photo by clicking on it, you can just make out the wings on the petioles.

The common name apparently arose because someone decided the flower shape and coloring resembled the face of a monkey. Personally, I don’t see it. What I see is a lovely 1-3-foot bright green opposite-leaved plant covered in showy pale violet flowers.

You’ll find this relatively common wildflower in consistently wet areas throughout most of the eastern United States. It has a relatively lengthy bloom period, from mid-summer to early fall. My monkeys finished blooming by mid-September.

I didn’t plant them. I assume floodwaters deposited seeds some years ago. They can spread a bit by rhizomes as well, and certainly in my yard, I have distinct patches of these beauties, as well as odd singles popping up here and there, often near Cardinal Flowers. The two species look fabulous together, especially when backed by early-blooming goldenrods.

The distinctive opposite-leaved structure of this wildflower makes it easy to identify.

The distinctive opposite-leaved structure of this wildflower makes it easy to identify.

To be happy, Winged Monkeyflowers require wet to consistently moist conditions and rich soil with abundant organic matter. They will thrive in full sun and light shade. If they look small and yellowish, they probably are getting too dry and hot. Mine were greenly lush this year, and astonishingly floriferous.

Winged Monkeyflowers prefer undisturbed wetlands, but mine are doing just fine despite significant disturbance from several floods this year. I suspect they would do very well as rain garden plants, and you can find commercial sources for this species, though it takes a bit of research.

If you’ve got a consistently moist spot in a bit of light shade, I would encourage you to try these long-blooming, showy wildflowers. They don’t have any fragrance, but bumblebees and other pollinators adore them anyway. They must not taste good, because mine are wholly unprotected and often surrounded by fresh deer tracks, yet remain uneaten.

And who can resist being able to brag about growing Winged Monkeys? At least that’s always where my admittedly strange mind goes — to Oz — when I spot one of these lovelies.

Fly, my pretties, fly!

Fly, my pretties, fly!

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A Piedmonter Revisits the NC Mountains

It doesn’t look particularly imposing in this picture, but that’s a mountain in the background. I discovered I had no great photos of the majestic Great Smoky Mountains when Wonder Spouse and I returned from our recent vacation in far western North Carolina. All my good shots are of flowers and/or pollinators. Go figure.

Wonder Spouse and I made the trek to higher elevations to celebrate the passage of his recent milestone birthday. For the sake of marital harmony, I shall refrain from identifying the milestone to which I refer. Happy Birthday again, sir!

We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we met many wonderful folks as we traveled about. However, I found myself often dismayed by what has happened to much of the landscape. From a distance, the mountains are still as beautiful as I remember from childhood visits. On the ground, the story was much different. Almost every single road we traveled was edged by rampant kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) overgrowth. The vines scaled towering rock cuts through mountains, smothering trees, rocks, and shrubs as far back from the road as I could see.

Even in the Nantahala National Forest, kudzu was often the only green plant I could see as we drove along. This was especially horrifying to me as we drove through the Nantahala River Gorge. On the day we were there, the Nantahala River was crowded with kayakers and rafters enjoying the journey downstream through rocky rapids. Perhaps they were too busy dodging boulders to notice that either side of the river was overrun by kudzu — an invasive exotic species originally introduced to the US in the 1930s to control erosion.

The only light moment for me during that drive was a road sign that read “Watch for slow raft buses next ten miles.” Until I saw the old school buses with platforms built on their roofs that held stacks of colorful inflatable rafts, I was mystified.

Invasive exotic plants were mercifully much less evident during our pilgrimage to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This preserve protects a forest with 400-year-old trees. Until you’ve stood beneath Tulip Poplars with circumferences more than 20 feet, you cannot begin to imagine what our southeastern forests must have once been like.

Even in early autumn, evidence of mountain wildflowers was everywhere. Tall white plumes of Black Cohosh were still abundant. Stream slopes were adorned with leaves of all the spring wildflowers. They must be quite a sight in April. Deciduous magnolias dotted the hills, along with Cinnamon-bark Clethra. It was quite wonderful to see these native trees where they belong; I hope they eventually look as lovely in my Piedmont landscape where I’ve planted them.

Yellow Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) was blooming prolifically. I’m not sure I convinced a visitor we met on the trail that this gorgeous yellow wildflower was not an orchid. I tried to explain to him that the orchids native to this habitat don’t bloom this time of year, but I’m not sure he was persuaded.

This wildflower was also abundant at the school where we spent most of our time in the mountains. While Wonder Spouse honed his photography skills, I wandered the large property, where I constantly encountered a depressing number of invasive exotic plant species. This vine was growing on a trail we walked daily to reach the dining hall.

Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) was imported as an ornamental for home landscapes. As happens so often, it has escaped into our woodlands. This particular invasive vine is bad in spots in the Piedmont, but not on my property. I hadn’t realized how common an issue it has become in our mountains until I saw it growing here.

Not a great shot, but you can see how high it climbs into the treetops.

During my walks along the grounds of the school we were visiting, I saw many other invasive exotic species throughout the property, including mulitflora rose, privet, Japanese bamboo grass, Princess Tree, Tree of Heaven, and English ivy. All had clearly escaped from former home landscapes. Many of these plants produce fruits beloved by birds, which is how these invaders have spread so insidiously. Others make seeds that are lightweight and travel far via air and water.

The best Web site I know of to learn more about invasive exotic plant species in the mountains of North Carolina is part of the site for the North Carolina Exotic Pest Plants Council. To learn about the mountain invaders and how to control them, go here.

The size and seeming solidity of mountains make it easy to imagine that theirs is an unchanging landscape, where time stands still, or at least moves too slowly for mere humans to notice. My recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains has dispelled that illusion. The hand of humankind is all too evident. I can’t help wondering how much longer the exquisite ecosystems native to this region can hold out.

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