Sunday, May 29, 2011

Free Plants that Bite Back

People love to get free plants, and who would blame them?  Mother Nature does her fair of gifting us with free plants … you would not believe how many maple seedlings I pull up every year!  Some of these “gifts” are easily recognizable and dealt with in swift fashion.  But sometimes you get something NEW, and the gardener’s heart flutters in anticipation: “Oh look, something has arrived!  I’ll bet it’s something GOOD.”

Well, I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but these days it is usually NOT something good.  Thanks to wildlife, wind, and water (the 3 main agents of dispersal), there are plenty of bad things arriving on a regular basis.  Some of these plants are so aggressive when mature that they will make you regret adopting them. Learn to recognize them early - before they bite the hand that feeds them!

A plant that is appearing now is one that is frequently mistaken for Orange Cosmos, but it’s Ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia.  It’s wind-dispersed pollen is a major source of allergies in late summer/early fall, but seedlings are arriving now. Here’s a picture of a seedling in my neighborhood.

Ambrosia artemisiifolia
Microstegium vimineum

How about a soft and delicate looking grass that looks so pretty in the shade? Microstegium vimineum is a deceptively meek looking plant that will be all over your shade garden within a year if you let it go to seed.  Luckily it is easy to remove when it is young, and it is an annual so it won’t grow back if you pull it.  If you have too much already, use a weed whacker to keep it low until frost so that it can’t bloom and make seed.

Ligustrum sinense

Privet is a plant that is so ubiquitous that people think it is a native plant, but it is not.  Ligustrum sinense was imported to the U.S. from China in the 1800’s and now covers much of the “wild” roadsides.  You can find it as tiny new seedlings, young saplings, and even as multi-trunked trees in front yards.  Some people just call it “hedge” because that is what it is often used for.  It’s ability to set large number of seeds allows it to seed into areas and take over, out-competing what would have “naturally” grown there.  It is especially thuggish in wet areas, but it thrives in dry places too.  Learn to identify it:  note the oppositely arranged leaves, small white flowers, and dark blue berries on mature plants.  Remove it as soon as you can.

Chinese privet seedling

Here is a picture of it when it is just a seedling (and very easy to pull out).  Notice the leaves are in pairs and are just a little "wavy" on the margins.
Nandina domestica

Nandina domestica is a popular landscape plant that if often called Heavenly Bamboo.  While this plant can sucker a bit locally, the real nuisance comes from birds eating the berries and spreading the plant to new locations.  I have found it numerous times in the middle of my wooded area, and I’ve seen it on the side of rural roads (please don’t tell me that someone planted it there!).

Nandina flowers

Here is one that frequently is mistaken for a holly, but Mahonia bealei is actually a member of the Barberry family.  Long used by Southerners as a landscape plant (I was horrified to see Home Depot selling it recently), this plant also appears courtesy of the birds.  I pull out several babies a year; it is easy to spot when I am close to the ground pulling out other weeds.  Turn the leaf over and you’ll see that the back side of it is almost completely white.  This is easy to pull out as a seedling.

Mahonia bealei
Back of leaf

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) has the distinction of disturbing more habitat in the Southeastern U.S. than any other alien plant: ¾ of a million acres!  Unlike Kudzu, honeysuckle is not so very noticeable, especially in small amounts.  I’ve been pulling it for years out of my property, and I’m not done yet.  It is no longer in the trees, it’s not anywhere it can flower and make fruit, but it’s covering a lot of ground still in the woods.  Look for the yellow and white flowers, opposite leaves and sometimes the leaves have a bit of “lobing” as shown.

Lonicera japonica
Lobed leaves

Ailanthus altissima

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) – let’s give this a more realistic name, how about “stinking sumac”?  This sneaky tree pops up in places and tries to convince people that it’s a Sumac (Rhus sp.) or a Walnut (Juglans sp.).  It has started to invade my subdivision, and I have seen it pop up in at least 4 yards now, including mine!  Look for the purplish color on the new leaves, the distinctive notch on the lower part of the leaflets, and the very stinky smell if you rub it or cut it.
Ailanthus altissima Seedling
Distinctive notch on leaflet

Elaeagnus pungens

Elaeagnus pungens is often called “Ugly Agnes” due to its unkempt form.  It throws out long whips that get tangled in other plants, allowing it to climb higher; I’ve seen it grow 20 feet high in a Leyland cypress that was behind it.  This is an evergreen shrub in the Atlanta area and the backs of the leaves are distinctively silver colored.  Fall flowers and thorns are also characteristics of this plant.

Paulownia tomentosa

Princess or Empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is no royalty in my book.  This plant grows fast and tall, quickly shading out its new neighbors.  Seeds are tiny and numerous, spreading by wind and water to adjacent properties.

Pyrus calleryana

 Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) is more appropriately known as “ornamental pear” because its seedlings are not true to the parent (so they can’t be ‘Bradford’).  Formerly sterile parents are now cross-pollinating with their cousins, creating thousands of viable fruit per tree.  Seedlings are recognized by a noticeable notch on one of the leaves and reddish petioles (stems).  Those that grow into trees are often thorny, which is the true nature of pears.  Vacant lots and roadsides around Atlanta reveal the extent of these errant saplings when they bloom in the spring.

Perilla frutescens

Perilla frutescens is sometimes called Chinese basil, Shiso, or wild red basil.  It makes a lot of seeds and spreads rapidly.  If this appears in your yard, pull it quickly or at least make sure it does not go to seed.

So if some new plant shows up in your yard, take the cautious approach and get it identified sooner rather than later.  In the case of these plants (and a few others), you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Oh, Look What Bloomed!

I’m always pleased when plants don’t die on me.  That shows a certain amount of skill, I think, to be able to keep it alive.  But when a plant blooms, then I take it as a compliment - because not only has the plant survived, it has thrived! 

When I noticed a few weeks ago that my Red Yucca was going to bloom, it reminded me of plants that have delighted me over the years.  Here are a few of my success stories from the past few years.

Hesperaloe parviflora
Photo by S. Honeycutt

The Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) is a plant that I purchased about 4 years ago in an effort to create a tropical look around the swimming pool. I have it in an arrangement with variegated Yucca filamentosa.  It is native to Texas and is considered a “false yucca”.  It bloomed the first year but then took several years “off”.

Decumaria barbara, 2010

I have the “climbing hydrangea” vine all over my yard but until 2010 I had yet to see it bloom.  Decumaria barbara is a deciduous vine in the Hydrangeaceae family.  It had scrambled up the fence next to the pool for several years, in full sun, but would not bloom.  Then I saw a TV show where the featured guest recommended pruning it across the top so that the vine would “think that it had climbed as high as it could go.”  The vine had indeed reached the top of the fence so I pruned a few tips off.  Voila – it bloomed the very next year and is on track to bloom again this year.

Magnolia virginiana, 2009
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a real sweetie.  One of our evergreen native magnolias, this tree can grow up to 60 feet in ideal conditions which includes very moist areas.  The silver color on the back of the leaves is a very distinctive characteristic.  The bloom is much smaller than the other magnolias, but the fragrance is just as nice.  I was thrilled when the plant I bought several years earlier bloomed in 2009.

Some years have produced more than one surprise. In 2008, a Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) that was given to me by a friend bloomed for the first time.  It has bloomed each year since then but has yet to set viable fruit.  I don't know if cross-pollination will help it, but I've brought in a few more plants to keep it company.  The other plant to bloom in 2008 was my Copper Iris (Iris fulva).  I had bought it at a plant sale several years earlier but kept it in a pot in the shade until I found a good spot for it.  Well, obviously I found a good spot because it took off the very next year.  Now I get lots of blooms and have divided it several times for friends and plant sales.  The flower is amazing!

Cornus alternifolia, 2008

Iris fulva, 2008

Rhododendron maximum, 2007

It is especially nice to have success with plants that have good memories for me.  In 2004 I went up to Maggie Valley, NC with my mom and my daughter to visit my mom's friends.  Their property was a heavily wooded 6 acre tract, and they allowed me to dig up a few plants.  I got some Rock Cap fern (Polypodium virginianum) and a small Rhododendron maximum.  I was unsure if the Rhododendron would make it so I kept it in a pot for a year while the roots recovered.  My patience paid off, and I was able to plant it in 2005. I was thrilled in the fall of 2006 to see it set buds, and it bloomed in the spring of 2007.

That same year one of my rescued Magnolia macrophylla trees was also mature enough to bloom.  What a great year that was for boosting my gardening confidence!
Magnolia macrophylla, 2007
Hymenocallis caroliniana, 2006

The previous year (2006) had the most spectacular bloom in June.  My spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana), a gift from my friend Murrel, bloomed.  I had planted this next to the porch, which was a most fortunate decision.  I am pretty sure that I didn't realize at the time that the area was so moist.  This lily loves moist areas!  When the first bloom popped out, I thought I would pass out from delight.  My husband could not believe it: "That's native?", he said.  Absolutely!  The plant set seeds that year, now I have several more plants.

If I go back one more year to 2005, the only other noteworthy garden item that I recorded (via photos) is that I designed a native mailbox garden.  I wanted to show the neighbors, especially the ones that walk by, that one could create an attractive mailbox arrangement using native plants.  Here you can see red Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks'), Heuchera americana 'Dale's Strain', Broad beech fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera), Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), Mouse-eared coreposis (Coreopsis auriculata), some deer-munched Gaura, and Penstemon digitalis 'Husker's Red'. 
Mailbox in 2005
The Gaura didn't make it and it was too dry for the Cardinal flower and Broad beech fern.  Everything else is still there and has increased in size.  I tried adding some asters one year but rabbits chewed them until they gave up. This year I added a few Penstemon smallii, and their purple flowers make a nice addition.

I hope things are blooming for you too.  But if not, just consider this quote by the late J. C. Raulston:

~ If you are not killing plants, you are not really stretching yourself as a gardener. ~

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Make the Most of Your Yard

Did you pick your yard for it’s gardening characteristics?  Probably not - but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the most of what you’ve got.  Scope out your sunny areas, deal with the shady spots and make some choices that help you enjoy it more, get more blooms and less heartache.

Sunny areas – I had an epiphany a couple of years ago when I realized that most of my good sunny spots were planted in lawn grass.  What a waste of good space!  I could reduce the lawn and use those spaces for sun-loving native trees like Crabapple (Malus) and Hawthorn (Crataegus) in the front yard.  On the side yard, reducing the grass would give me more room in my sunny fall border to add more native perennials like Asters, Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Silk grass (Pityopsis graminifolia) and sunflowers (Helianthus).

Symphyotrichum georgianum
Pityopsis graminifolia

I had also recently learned that Japanese Beetle grubs overwinter in grass roots so I knew that reducing my lawn would reduce the habitat for those bugs.  I have removed a lot of grass in the last two years and am enjoying watching my new things grow.

Fragrant plants are unique plants that need to be appreciated by your nose.  Years ago someone suggested that they be placed where you can smell them, and I have tried to incorporate that idea.  I love Piedmont azaleas (Rhododendron canescens) for their blooms but even more so for their sweet smell.  I have several of them among my foundation plantings.  When my office window is open, I can smell them.  When I walk through the yard, I pass them often, stopping to sniff the blooms in spring as I go.  On my shadier side yard, I have planted Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) so that I can smell it as I walk around that way. 

Rhododendron canescens

Calycanthus floridus

Perhaps you can think of a place for your fragrant plants: near a porch, near a pair of chairs or even near a window that you open during that time of year.

Mitella diphylla
A similar concept applies for other special plants: put them where you can see them, such as on a pathway or near a door that you use.  Two different friends recently gave me pots of Miterwort (Mitella diphylla), sometimes called Bishop’s Cap.  I planted it in a new area on the side yard where I’ll be able to see it as I walk around to that side (which I do almost every day).  It will be a nice reminder of my good friends whenever I see it.

In choosing your special place, remember to ensure it has the appropriate light/moisture conditions for the plant.

I love it when people tell me about problem areas that are too wet.  There are so many good native plant choices for those areas!  I encourage them to stop fighting the problem and choose plants that will thrive there.  Here are just a few ideas:

Sunny wet areas: Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus), Inkberry (Ilex glabra), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis), shrub dogwoods (Cornus foemina or Cornus amomum), Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Turtlehead (Chelone sp.), Copper Iris (Iris fulva) and other Iris like Iris virginica, and Spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana).

Iris fulva

Lobelia cardinalis
Hymenocallis caroliniana

Shady to part sun wet areas: Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), Smooth azalea (Rhododendron arborescens), Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), Royal fern (Osmunda regalis), Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), Foamflower (Tiarella sp.), Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii).

Hexastylis shuttleworthii

Don’t be afraid to experiment – often shade tolerant plants can handle more sun when they get more moisture.  I have seen some of the plants listed in the “shady” list above grow fine in full sun.  By the way, if you need a source for wetland plants, contact Baker Environmental Nursery in Hoschton, GA.

Speaking of light, plants that need protection from the harsh afternoon sun in Georgia still need sufficient light in order to bloom.  Morning light, light that comes from the east, is the solution.  Native azaleas (Rhododendron sp.), Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and evergreen Rhododendrons (such as Rhododendron catawbiense) thrive when sited on the side of the garden that gets 4-6 hours of sunlight before 1 pm.  Don’t waste this space on plants that can handle more afternoon sun.

Kalmia latifolia

If you put these plants in shade to protect them from the afternoon sun, you might be disappointed in their ability to bloom.  Evaluate your spaces for adequate sunlight starting from 7 am – and don’t sell your plants short when it comes to giving them what they need.

What then will you do with that area that is shady?  The one where the grass won’t grow and the moss takes over … embrace the moss!  Seriously, it is a beautiful plant in it’s own right and is a great medium for germinating the seeds that nature tosses your way.  Give up on the grass and research plants that thrive in shade: ferns, trilliums, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), crested iris (Iris cristata), gingers (Hexastylis sp. and Asarum sp.) to name but a few.  Plants of all shapes, shades and textures will thrive for you in that “problem area”, turning your problem into a lush and beautiful woodland.

Iris cristata

Make the most of your yard by working with the conditions, not against them.  It can be just as beautiful and even more rewarding – not to mention more fun.  Isn't this moss a beautiful sight? 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Spring Rewind

Spring passes by so quickly that sometimes it is over before we know it.  Early this week I got a chance to have a “do over” by traveling up north of me to visit a high elevation garden in North Carolina.  It was nice to see trilliums blooming again, fern fronds unfurling, as well as to see some plants that don’t grow in my area.  Here is a quick tour of my trip to the Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, NC.

The Southern Highlands Reserve is located in western North Carolina at an elevation of 4500'. SHR is a private native plant garden and research center dedicated to the preservation, cultivation and display of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Highlands. You can learn about the Reserve and it’s mission here.

Rhododendron vaseyi is a gorgeous pink azalea with a very limited range, but it is indigenous to this property.  Luckily the plants were in full bloom for our visit.  The range of blooms varied from very light pink to dark pink.

Rhododendron vaseyi

Phlox stolonifera

Phlox stolonifera was a new plant for me.  They’ve used this extensively in some of the landscaped areas and the handsome foliage makes for a nice groundcover.  The bright blue blooms are very much like the Phlox divaricata that we have around here.

Here are a couple trillium that are not found near me: Painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) and red trillium (Trillium erectum).  Catesby’s trillium (Trillium catesbaei) was also there in abundance and happily blooming in a deeper shade of pink than I usually see it.

Trillium erectum
Trillium undulatum

Magnolia fraseri

Mountain magnolia (Magnolia fraseri) was blooming heavily throughout the area. A big one had fallen down recently so we were able to see and smell the blooms up close. What a divine fragrance!

 You can’t be up at 4500 feet and not have great views.  Here is a view from our walk to the waterfalls. You can just see a lake on the left side of the picture.

The area is considered a temperate rain forest. Rainfall in the area is 80-90 inches per year on average and that makes for lush growth and, with the right rock formations, nice waterfalls.  Our hike included 3 waterfalls.

The waterfalls were spectacular and many plants thrived in the moist pockets around them, even plants that I associate with drier areas like Bluets (Houstonia caerulea).  Here is a shot looking UP one of the waterfalls.

The ample moisture in the area allows nature to successfully seed around and many plants were growing in cracks and crevices of rocks.  Here are a few examples that I wish would appear in my garden!

Viola sp.
Heuchera americana

It wouldn’t be right if I failed to point out some of the special woody plants there.  American chestnut (Castanea dentata) grows there naturally, but most of it is affected by the Chestnut blight.  Mature trees succumb and then resprout from the stump, over and over again.  In one of the landscaped areas there is a healthy population of Sand Myrtle (Kalmia buxifolia).  While not indigenous to the area, it is very happily growing in well-drained rock crevices.  What a beautiful little member of the genus that includes Mountain Laurel.
Castanea dentata
Kalmia buxifolia
Gaylussacia ursina

And here is bear huckleberry, Gaylussacia ursina, a prolific shrub in the Reserve.  We were told that some areas of it get a "huckleberry haircut" to keep it low in the landscaped areas.  The vast majority of it, however, gets to grow naturally to about 6-8 feet.

Other special plants in the landscaped areas were Royal fern (Osmunda regalis), which was appropriately sited next to a man-made lake that was home to bullfrogs, and Toothwort (Cardamine sp.) tucked up against a rock in a mossy area.

Osmunda regalis

Cardamine sp.

Southern Highlands Reserve was previously only open to groups by reservation.  I was there as part of a trip arranged by the Georgia Native Plant Society.  Starting this month, they are open on the first Tuesday of each month to interested individuals.  Contact them in advance to arrange your visit.  There is no charge, but donations are most welcome. If you go in the fall, you'll be able to see the Wildflower Labyrinth.