Posts Tagged wildflower

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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Majestic Ironweed Reigns over Wetlands

Amethyst-colored Ironweed flowers glow in early morning sunlight.

The recent and uncharacteristic (at least for the last few years) August rains in my area have encouraged the local Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) population to new heights of enthusiasm. When we first moved to our patch of NC Piedmont over 20 years ago, I didn’t see any of this common wetland wildflower, so I actually bought a couple of plants to add to the back of a flowerbed, where the height of these late-summer bloomers would not overpower smaller flowers.

Ironweed is perfectly happy in a typical flowerbed, as long as it receives adequate moisture, but it flourishes best in its native habitat — creek edges and floodplains, where its purple flowers contrast beautifully with the many native composites and goldenrods that can make late summer a monotony of yellow.

Of course, after I planted my store-bought plants, I began to spot native volunteers all over the wetter areas of our yard. Clearly, they had been there all along; I had simply overlooked them in the early years.

During drought years, I sometimes see no blooming plants, or at best, one. This year — the dampest we’ve had in a while (though not wet at my house) — Ironweed is blossoming randomly all over the moister portions of the yard.

I like the way the longish lance-shaped leaves don’t overpower the beauty of the flower head (called a corymb by botanists).

When it’s truly happy, it can grow seven feet tall. My wildflower volunteers are more in the 4-5-foot range, which I deem quite respectable, especially given that two-week round of 100+-degree temperatures we endured in July.

The flowers are beloved by pollinators, and the seeds, which botanists call nutlets, are favored by a number of native bird species. I leave my plants wherever they pop up and let them complete their life cycles on their own terms. Inevitably, a few seeds escape the birds and sprout into new plants the next spring. You can also propagate this perennial from stem cuttings taken in June or July.

Even the native asters that come into their own a bit later in the season are not as deep and rich a purple as the flowers of Ironweed. I highly recommend this trouble-free native perennial wildflower for any spots in your yard that can accommodate its height and moderate moisture requirements. Your reward will be amethyst-colored flowers for over a month, abundant butterflies, and happy local seed-eating birds — a wildflower win-win for everyone.

Flower color is even more richly purple when the plant stands in shadows.

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Trumpets in the Trees

Trumpets dangle from a floodplain pine.

A day or so ago, someone found my blog by searching on this question: “Does honeysuckle make beans?” I knew at once that someone had mistaken a Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) vine that had produced seed pods with our native Coral Honeysuckle. These pods are long and quite bean-like to a casual observer. Because the bright orange-red flowers are tubular — similar to the shape of our native Coral Honeysuckle — I’m not surprised that someone mistakenly assumed that it was a honeysuckle vine with “beans.”

A closer look at this high-climbing (up to 35 feet) native vine reveals its many differences from Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). First, Trumpet Creeper flowers are considerably larger than those of our native honeysuckle, and they usually are a bit more of an orange-red. Next, the leaves are completely different. Trumpet Creeper leaves are pinnately compound and much larger than honeysuckle leaves.

The vines themselves are different too. Honeysuckle vines wrap themselves around objects they climb. Trumpet Creepers produce aerial rootlets — similar to those of non-native English Ivy — which attach themselves to trees, buildings, telephone poles — whatever is handy. And, like the rootlets of English Ivy, Trumpet Creeper aerial rootlets can damage mortar between bricks, so don’t let it climb on any structure you want to last.

The fruits of these two native vines are completely different. Coral Honeysuckle produces little red berries, which are enjoyed by wildlife.  Trumpet Creeper fruits are, botanically speaking, capsules, but anyone looking at them would call them long beans. The pods turn brown when they are ripe and split in half to release papery seeds. In late summer and fall, I find their emptied pod halves all over my floodplain.

As far as I know, no wildlife eats the pods, and deer don’t much like to graze on the leaves, although the leaves are food for the caterpillars of the Trumpet Vine Sphinx Moth. But those big trumpet-shaped flowers are irresistible to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which is reason enough for me to leave these fairly aggressive natives alone in my landscape where I can.

You must watch this native vine. It pops up from underground roots all over the place in softer soils, and it can shoot up a telephone pole or the side of a house phenomenally fast. Drought doesn’t much slow it down. Rain sends it soaring. If it sprouts in your lawn where you don’t want it, mowing will control it.

On my five acres of Piedmont, I allow Trumpet Vine to flourish uncontested on our floodplain. A number of vines have scaled the mature pines there, where they often successfully outcompete poison ivy. From June through August, orange-red trumpets dangle from the treetops, much to the delight of chittering hummingbirds zooming from flower to flower.

Trumpet Creeper is native to the southeastern United States, but it has managed to spread itself up and down the East Coast and well into the middle of the country too. It has a couple of other common names, including Trumpet Vine and Cow-Itch Vine. That last name likely arose because some folks get an itchy rash when they touch the leaves and vines of this native. I always wear gloves when I handle it; I don’t want to find out the hard way whether or not my skin reacts to it.

Here’s a link that offers you photos of the pods and the various flower color variations you can find in the wild. Horticulturalists have developed quite a number of varieties of this vine that offer you some color choices.  For example, ‘Minnesota Red’ is a nice, deep red. ‘Flava’ and ‘Judy’ both sport yellow flowers, and ‘Madame Galen’ offers deep orange-apricot flowers. All of the cultivars share the native version’s vigor, so site this vine carefully if you decide to add it to your landscape. And whatever you do, don’t feed it! It doesn’t need the help, trust me.

Despite its somewhat aggressive tendencies, I think any Piedmont landscape is improved by having a few Trumpet Creepers growing up sturdy trees in out-of-the way spots. If you’ve got such a locale, consider giving this native vine a try. The hummingbirds will thank you.

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Eastern Sensitive-Briar: A Novelty for your Native Piedmont Landscape

Pink powder puff flowers of Eastern Sensitive-Briar

Does this plant look familiar? If you turned it into a tree and made the leaves and flowers larger, it would look a lot like a non-native, invasive tree common to many southeastern Piedmont landscapes: Albizzia julibrissin, commonly called Mimosa Tree.

But this is not a young Mimosa Tree. This is an inconspicuous native vine of our region. Like the Mimosa Tree, the Eastern Sensitive-Briar (Mimosa microphylla) is in the Legume family, which likely explains the resemblance.

I learned about this vine when I became a tour guide at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC. It grows in the Sandhills Habitat Garden, where this vine covered in tiny (not really pain-inducing) prickles sprawls over other plants in the exhibit during the growing season. It is easiest to spot this time of year when it is covered in pink flower clusters shaped like globes.

Because I learned of the plant in that exhibit, I thought it was a native characteristic of the Sandhills geographic region, and it is. But this delicate deciduous vine is more widespread than I realized, thriving in dry woodlands and forests and in disturbed areas throughout much of the Carolinas and Georgia.

I discovered it growing in my yard last year right where my research told me to expect it: along the disturbed edge of my woods beside my road. The mixed mess of vegetation growing along my roadway is an area I have largely ignored over the years. Its purpose is to create a barrier between the road and the rest of my yard, and it fulfills its function admirably.

So I was pleasantly surprised last year as I was mowing the strip of grass along the road to spot this vine sprawling on nearly barren ground at the edge of the woods. This year, it has spread a bit, but it is not invasive, and it’s a great novelty plant, so I’m letting it sprawl where it will.

Note the compound, evenly bipinnate, mostly alternate leaves.

And why, you ask, do I think of it as a novelty plant? The answer to that lies in its common name — Eastern Sensitive-Briar. This refers to the touch-sensitive nature of its leaflets. Have you ever noticed how the leaflets on Mimosa Trees fold up at night? If not, check it out sometime.

Eastern Sensitive-Briar is more touchy. Its leaflets close when they are bumped into — even in bright sunlight! Allow me to demonstrate. Here’s a shot of the vine before I touched some of the leaflets:

Note the open leaflets along the section in the middle.

Now take a look at the same vine after I fondled a few of the leaflets:

See the closed-up leaflets?

You may need to click on the above photo to enlarge it for a better look.

Personally, I think this is a nifty feature, and I know whenever I volunteered as a tour guide at the NC Botanical Garden and demonstrated this trait, it elicited astonishment from visitors.

It would have never occurred to me to deliberately plant this little native vine in my yard, but since it found its way on its own, it is welcome to stay. The diminutive pink powder puff flowers are lovely, and the child in me will never grow tired of tweaking a few leaflets to make them close.

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Lyreleaf Sage: Lovely Wildflower Groundcover — With Blooms!

Flowers attract bees and hummingbirds.

Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyrata) is blooming all over my yard at the moment. In fact, it’s blooming all over my area; I noticed several large stands thriving on a shady roadside near my house this morning.

Another common name for this plant is Cancer Weed, because it has been thought by some to cure skin cancers; it’s still considered to be a cure for warts by many herbalists. One source I read said it was thought to cure cancer, because it spread vigorously — like a cancer — on the earth. But I think that’s overstating this native’s aggressive tendencies quite a bit.

The lyre in its name refers to the shape of the evergreen basal rosette of leaves that someone decided resembled the shape of a lyre — a U-shaped instrument from ancient Greece. I don’t see the similarity myself, but the leaves are very distinctive, making it easy to identify this wildflower even when it’s not blooming.

Here’s a close-up of the leaves:

The reddish-purple vein color of the lobed leaves is diagnostic for this species.

Although it is a member of the mint family, this common wildflower is not particularly fragrant, but the flower stalk does sport the square shape that characterizes this group of plants. Lyreleaf Sage grows and spreads on sandy and loamy soils; it’s not a fan of clay. It can tolerate deep shade to full sun, periodic flooding, and moderate drought.

Some have recommended this native for use as a groundcover, comparing it to ajuga, and it certainly is as tough as ajuga — but not nearly as dense a spreader as far as I’ve seen.

I think the blue flowers are lovely, and the unique leaves of its basal rosettes add a touch of color to my patchwork “lawn.”

Odds are it’s either already growing or would happily grow in your Piedmont yard. Do you have a shady spot where grass won’t grow? Try establishing a patch of Lyreleaf Sage in your bare spot. You’ll have a year-round, attractive evergreen groundcover, and stately stalks of blue flowers every spring.

Bloom stalks typically range between 1 and 2 feet.

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