Native plants

Milkweed Magic

Milkweed in budJuly has arrived and the long borders are glorious after a cool and rainy spring. Summer is here and while the tended gardens are beautiful, I have a confession. It is not the the glorious flowers of astilbe, bee balm, phlox or even the majestic delphiniums which have caught my attention this summer. No, it is a lowly native plant patch which beacons me and Gibbs, each day, down into the lower back field. Milkweed moundSometimes it is in the morning with a cup of coffee. Other times it is in the glare of the mid day sun. Often it is late in the day. Halfway down between the barn and the lower field, the scent pulls me forward. It is heavy and sweet and as identifiable, once experienced, as that of lily of the valley or lilac. The milkweed patch, Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, has taken root in the well composted horse manure pile of the back field. Milkweed patchAs unromantic a start as can be had. In the morning, the flower heads of the milkweed are thick with dew, in mid-afternoon the patch hums with life and in evening the scent seems the sweetest. To stand at the edge, or even in the midst of a patch of milkweed is a revelation. Milkweed moth and honeybeeThere are moths, bumblebees, honeybees and milkweed beetles meeting for some afternoon delight. A visceral experience of sight, sound and scent. Beetle loveAt the recent Fourth of July party, a good part of the afternoon involved several trips down to the milkweed patch. All who traveled there seemed amazed. I have to believe they were being more than polite and the surprise and appreciation at the life in and scent of the milkweed patch was genuine. There are many interesting facts about our native milkweed. It was named for the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius and as expected it has many medicinal uses. The latex like substance exuded from the plant when it is cut or damaged has been used to treat warts. The milkweed plant contains cardioactive glycosides which gives protection from predators to those insects who ingest it. Good news for the monarch caterpillar and butterfly which feed exclusively on Asclepias species. The silky parachute of the milkweed seed is six times more buoyant than cork and five times warmer than wool. The floret of the milkweed has the ability to trap the leg of an insect seeking nectar.  Milkweed flower closeupA structure called the corpusculum does the trick. This helps ensure pollination as pollen is dispersed as the insect struggles for freedom. The coarse fibers of the stalk have been used by Native Americans to make twine.  You can read much more about this plant from the experts but there is no substitute for standing near the milkweed patch where you can hear, smell and see all the life which it supports. I would not recommend this species plant for the manicured border but there are other garden worthy species available such as A. tuberosa, Butterflyweed. Milkweed and flying beesCommon milkweed is coarse and can be invasive as it spreads from both seed and runners but if you have a sunny field area it would make a great addition to your landscape. Milkweed pod and seedI look forward to visiting the flowering patch which will last another week or two but I know, in mid-October, the milkweed will again please the senses as the seeds ripen, the plush parachutes open to catch the breeze and they lift and float to fields unknown.


Bushy American Aster

AsterI have a native wildflower blooming this late in the garden. I think it is the bushy American aster, Symphyotrichum dumosum, although it could be S. racemosum. It is hard to tell them apart.  The flowers are arranged more loosely in the S. dumosum species and it would appear the same as the plant which has volunteered its cheerful autumn blooms in my garden. The foliage is light and airy. I often wonder how the volunteers arrive in the garden. Do they travel on the breeze or are they dropped by a passing bird who enjoyed this seed? The flowers do mature to small puffs so the obvious answer would be that they arrived on a breeze. I never saw it happen. There are no asters in the field but, nonetheless, this plant has seeded in the front of the border. No matter. It is a see through plant and one that I now enjoy. Despite intensive gardening Mother Nature often has her own ideas on what should be growing in the borders. The ragweed gets weeded out as do many of the Queen Anne's Lace seedlings since they have a tendency to take right over. This plant I leave. It is well behaved and I think you will agree, quite lovely. This is really my first Wildflower Wednesday post and thanks go to Gail at Clay and Limestone for hosting and helping to make us all aware of the natural wonders of our own specific areas.

Naked Plant ID

Silhouette of treeNow that I have your attention, you are probably shivering at the thought but there is no need to undress. The plants, trees in this case, are already in their bare form and if you can brave the cold this time of year and have the desire to increase your identification skills there are many opportunities to do so.  I took a course in ornamental tree identification many years ago as part of my college curriculum. I loved it. When I saw in the Audubon brochure that there was a tree identification class available this past Saturday I decided to attend. My previous course covered ornamental trees and shrubs which did include some natives but I feel that my skills at identifying those trees along the roadside are not what I would wish them to be. I do know many of the woodland trees but some I just can't identify. Winter tree identification has a language all its own.
Terminal bud, leaf scar lenticels
Terminal bud, shield shaped leaf scar and lenticels (dots on stem)
Bud scales, bud scar, leaf scar, pith, lenticel, growth rings and then there are the buds themselves. Are they clustered or single? Sticky, smooth or velvety? Much of this course was review for me at least with the terminology but it is challenging to re-acquaint oneself with those terms. Books on Tree IDI have quite a few books to help me in my cause. Gray's Manual of Botany is a wonderful key if you know all of the language. Years ago I bought Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines for a class and never used it. It cost $79.00 twenty years ago and it is a wonderful book whose time has finally come. I also own three of Michael Dirr's books. His Manual of Woody Landscape Plants is still used by many college students. Seeing Trees is a gorgeous book on trees written by Nancy Ross Hugo with photographs by Robert Llewellyn. It is informative, fun to read and the photographs are incredible. No Kindle or Nook would properly do them justice.
Opposite branching
Opposite branching on a red maple
I usually start with the basic outline of the tree and then move on to the bark. A closer view of the tree's branching structure will show if the branching is opposite or alternate. There are fewer genus of trees exhibiting opposite branching than alternate. Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Horse chestnut and those in the Caprifoliaceae family all have opposite branching. Furrowed barkThe bark of an ash is deeply furrowed and quite beautiful while that of the paper birch can easily be identified by the sheets of peeling white. Paperbark birchI have many different types of oaks on my property. White oak and pin oak along with some red oak. Quercus palustrisThe pin oaks are easy to spot as their lower branches dip toward the ground while the basic form of the tree is pyramidal. Trees are quite beautiful in their nakedness.
Many have buds which are quite distinctive. Most of us can identify a flowering dogwood from the fat flower bud.Tulip tree seed head The Tulip tree has this distinctive seedhead. Every endeavor requires one to start at the beginning and no matter what your skill level there is always a new plant to learn. I would bet that Michael Dirr would know all of the trees on my property but for the rest of us there would be something new around each corner. Do you have any desire to know your neighborhood trees? It would be fun to learn together.  

Hydrangea quercifolia - Purpleicious

Oakleaf hydrangeaI know, purpleicious is a made up word but violaceous just does not work for the description of the color of Oakleaf hydrangea leaves at this time of year. And while the leaves do look oak like they really remind me of grape leaves but perhaps that is just because of the infusion of grape color which is so welcome as dormancy descends on the garden. The landscape has turned brown with a few exceptions. Those include the late hanging leaves, the shock of blue green kale in the vegetable garden and the green grass. For a gardener intent on perfect combinations, late fall has to rely on evergreens and shrubs with stubborn leaves. DSC_0041I am enjoying the thick, aubergine colored leaves on this hydrangea. Planted in combination with the Euonymous fortunei 'Variegatus' in the foreground, this shrub only looks better. This combination is a backbone planting in the back shrub border and since it is in a bit more shade than is suitable for a flowering shrub, there are only a few blossoms on the hydrangea during the summer. IMG_0008No matter, this shrub which is native to Georgia, Florida and Missouri, comes into its own in the fall and I would plant it just for the unique fall foliage. An easy plant to grow. it has yet to endure any pest problems. This oakleaf hydrangea has been in the garden a good five years and is now four feet tall and a bit wider. Plant it where it has room to spread although there are new cultivars on the market which are smaller and narrower if your garden space is at a premium. This hydrangea forms flower buds on the previous year's growth so prune only right after flowering and well before bud set in late summer. The walk through the garden is a bit more hurried these days as temperatures drop and the first snow is already behind us. I must remember to put on an extra layer and slow down a bit to make sure I don't miss these last colorful leaves of the season. What plant in your garden has gotten your attention recently?

Gradual Gold

The back gardenThe usual slow pace of decline in the garden is fast forwarded when you are away from it for any length of time. Usually, October is brilliant but the autumn colors are less than dramatic here this year. Perhaps it is relative and I am unfairly comparing them to the brilliance of the trees in Maine which I saw the first of the month. The seasonal change in leaf color can spice up the garden as flowers wane.  The first heavy frost occurred just a week ago and morning temperatures are finally chilly.'Pink Sheffield'Having been away for a good part of the month, all that is left blooming is the very late 'Pink Sheffield' mums along with Eupatorium 'Chocolate' and a couple Knock out rose blooms. Eupatorium 'Chocolate'I do see some color on the delphinium in the upper garden but that is another story. The garden needs a good cleanup as the leaves fall and cover everything with their uniform brown. Most of the trees closely surrounding my garden are oaks while the outer perimeter is ringed with white pine. White pines are very shallow rooted and not a great choice when planted in close proximity to a garden. They are a softwood evergreen and the native white pine, Pinus strobus, is very large. Oaks are more desirable for my garden as they give great shade, are deeply rooted and can be pruned up for more light. They are, however, very stubborn about giving up their leaves. The leaves start to fall in October and they continue to drift to the ground right through the winter. The abscission layer of oak leaves is stubborn and fails to fully mature uniformly. Some leaves wait to fall until spring growth begins. They settle on the garden through the fall and winter like dust on the bookshelves requiring weekly attention if the garden is to look tidy. Not so the white pines. The white pine woods are cleaning themselves. DSC_0028A new layer of pine needles have been shed and they cover the ground with a uniform sprinkling of cinnamon. DSC_0030This soft layer of needles muffles the sounds of the wildlife and not so wild life. Plush as a Persian carpet, the woodland paths are inviting me in to take a walk.   

Culver's Root - Veronicastrum virginicum

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Veronicastrum virginicum

Culver's Root is a wonderful perennial with a common name which bears the question "Who is Culver"? Friend Gail of Clay and Limestome fame has provided the information on the common name from the Prairie Moon Plant website. It is derived from the name Dr. Coulvert who found a medicial use for the plant in the 18th century. Dr. Coulvert may have the honor of the name but Native Americans used the plant as an emetic probably long before Dr. Coulvert examined its medicinal properties. I find that the genus name,Veronicastrum, is a much more descriptive name for this native herbaceous perennial as its flowers do resemble those of veronica which is a more familiar plant. Veronicastrum is widely distributed in the U.S. from the east coast to the mid-west. It will grow in zones 3-10 and tolerates a wide range of soil type and light although it is at home in the open woods, thickets and meadows. August 1st 001It is in the same family, Scrophulariaceae, as veronica. Snapdragons also are family members. There is much to recommend this plant for your perennial border. It has beautiful foliage. The leaves surround the stem in a whorled pattern and when the flowers do emerge in mid-summer they are spikes which do stand straight and tall with the caveat "if pinched". This plant is described as a plant with erect stems but I have found that left to its own devices it stands less than erect. I have it planted in full sun, partial shade, dry soil, moist soil and even lean soil. Perhaps it is the strain I am growing that flops. I saw a beautiful stand of Veronicastrum in an English garden the summer of 2011. It was at a garden called 'Woodpeckers' and the plant was dense with new growth in mid-June.

V. Chelsea Chopped
Culver's Root exhibiting 'The Chelsea Chop'

So dense,in fact, it took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. I asked the owner/gardener about the plant which had new growth at the top and he told me that they always do the "Chelsea Chop" on their Veronicastrum plants. I had not heard this term before so he explained that he pinches the plant by a good third during the time of the Chelsea Flower Show which takes place at the end of May. This year, I gave my plant by the front walkway the mid-June chop. Our winters are more severe than those of England and plants emerge a bit later so I adjusted the calendar accordingly.

Veronicastrum 2
The 'June Chop' on Culver's Root

There is no flopping on this plant by the walk which stands about three and a half feet tall.

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Veronicastrum v.

Not so for those in the island garden which are a bit caddywhompus as are those in the long, sunny border where this plant would be six feet tall if it were not leaning against the fence.

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Veronicastrum with phlox and bee balm

I think it looks much nicer after the 'chop'.  I am trying to find a apt name. One that will remind me to pinch this plant in June. I don't know, the 'Flag Day Chop' does not have much of a ring to it. Do you have any suggestions?     



The Back Field

DSC_0025Many of us see a field as an opportunity but, not all of us see it as the same type of opportunity. I cringe when I see a field succumb to urban sprawl. Its once pristine appearance dotted with houses or worse, strip malls. I see a field as an opportunity to enjoy nature almost untamed. DSC_0034Almost because fields just don't happen. They require yearly mowing after the initial years of clearing. When our home was built over 3 decades ago, we cleared the land for the house but we did inherit this field.
At that time there was an abundance of sheep laurel, blueberries and grasses. Constant mowing has eradicated some of the original plants but the blueberries are still here although there are fewer. There is pokeweed and milkweed along with goldenrod and grasses.  I can identify the timothy grass but the fine grass which catches the morning light in dew is a mystery. DSC_0024Perhaps it is time to take a course in field botany but, for now, I will just enjoy the show. 


Inviting Moss

DSC_0008There is quite a bit of moss at Ledge & Gardens. It covers the stone walls, permeates the lawn and sits at the base of the trunks of trees. DSC_0021I have always loved moss. As a child I would find a bed of moss and lie down on it never really minding the wet elbows and knees which inevitably resulted from such a moist, spongy bed. DSC_0006I have used it to line the fairy garden bench which started life with the name 'herb bench'. It is in a bit of shade so moss suits it better. The moss has also taken over the stone patio by the fish pond. DSC_0016This emerald green carpet glows in the low slant of the sun at this time of year. As golds turn to brown, green moss is a welcome addition to the landscape. It flourishes now with more moisture and lower light levels.  DSC_0012Moss has gotten quite a bit more attention lately.  Moss & Stone Gardens is a wonderful website with great ideas on how to use moss in unique and interesting new ways. I recently cleaned out some of the urns for the season and since they are fiberglass and can withstand a freeze better than ceramic or clay, I decided to plant them with moss. DSC_0019The smallest one is cast iron. I love the soft look of the moss and probably should add some decorative elements. Any thoughts on that?


Spectacular Sumac!

High 59.2 F
Low 52.0 F

Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger' or 'Tiger Eyes'

What is better than a 'Tiger Eye' Sumac?  A grouping of three or more perhaps!  This plant was introduced to the market in 2004 by Bailey Nurseries. Rhus typhina is a native shrub and this particular cultivar was spotted in a group at the nursery and subsequently propagated for its' unusual acid yellow summer color. Dsc_0014 It also has spectacular fall color and great year round texture.  In the winter, the skeleton is a bit coarse but architecturally interesting. The branches are covered with a fuzzy indumentum giving the appearance of deer antlers.  The buds emerge in the spring Rhus_tiger_eyes and are bright red with hints of pink, orange and yellow. All of the colors in the fall display are previewed in the buds. The stems of this sumac are maroon and you can see from this pictureAlliium_and_tiger_eyes that it pairs well with Allium sphaerocephalon, drumstick allium.   I could easily lose myself in this well of color. Dsc_0003 This plant is very adaptable to most soil types thriving even in clay soil. It has quite a wide range of zone hardiness growing from Zone 4 through Zone 8.  I did notice some runners on this plant this spring but I just chopped them off and have not seen any more develop.  Tiger Eyes has been growing in my garden for two years and is about five feet tall.Dsc_0020   Full sun is recommended. On a rainy October day it cheers up an otherwise dismal garden.  Do any of you have one of these sumacs?


Native plants!

High 56 F
Low  52 F

Euonymus americanus-American Strawberry bush or 'Hearts-a-burstin'

Much has been written concerning the winged Euonymus, Euonymus alatus.  This shrub has become a hallmark of fall with its' bright red foliage and its' presence along highways and in suburban areas.  Once used extensively by highway crews this plant is now on many states' invasive species lists.  It does seem to reseed freely under favorable conditions although my personal experience is that while I have three of these shrubs which were seedlings given to me by a friend whose plant had reseeded, I have never seen a seedling from this plant in the surrounding area.  Winged Euonymus was brought to this country in the 1860's as an ornamental shrub.  It is native to China, Japan and Korea.  It is hard to beat its' bright red foliage of autumn.  Less well know is the native Euonymus, Euonymus americanus.  This unprepossessing shrubs' common name is American strawberry bush or ' hearts-a- burstin'.  This is an understory shrub which grows four to six feet tall in well drained acid soils in shade to partial shade.  It is hardy from Zones 5-9 giving it quite a range.  To see one in full fruit is definitely something to talk about. Closeup_ea_berries The fruit is enclosed within a capsule which pulls back as it dries giving a flowering effect.  This shrub is fruiting now and I can't help but marvel at its' interesting shape and the wonder of its' fruit.  It is fairly nondescript most of the year but then many ornamental shrubs are until the flowering or fruiting takes place. The flower is small, white and insignificant.Dsc_0050 Would anyone look at the unblooming hydrangea and desire it for their garden?  This is a great little native shrub which settles into the border or the woodland edge with dignity until it covers itself with its' flamboyant fruit.  I have never seen this for sale at any nursery but perhaps I should.  What do you think of this native shrub? Dsc_0055


An addendum to this post...This native may be Euonymus atropurpureus rather than E. americanus.  Stay tuned for further updates!