Sunday, July 29, 2012

Hooray for Helianthus!

As summer heats up, Helianthus comes into its own.  The genus that gives us the stately annual sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is well represented in the southeastern US and most of the US itself. In fact, if there had to be only one wildflower to represent the US, I’d nominate the sunflower, it’s that ubiquitous.  According to one source there are 67 species native to the US, and USDA shows approximately 25 being found in Georgia. They are found throughout the state, including coastal areas.

Helianthus annuus

Vegetable gardeners love to grow the annual sunflower. I have seen a number of roadside plantings this year (gardeners thoughtfully put the sunflowers closest to the road so the rest of us can admire them). On the way back from vacation this year we passed a huge field of them; we stopped so that 3 of us could take pictures of them.

Cultivation has created some incredible cultivars, including the single-flowered giant plant that we admire so much. The non-cultivated (that is, the original) form actually is more branched and has multiple smaller flower heads on the plant.

Field of Helianthus annuus
Disk and ray flowers

Most of the members of the genus Helianthus are perennial plants. They usually share the characteristics of coarse, rough leaves and a flower that is composed of both disk and ray flowers. The disk flowers are tiny fertile flowers in the center – once pollinated, each flower turns into a single achene (or seed). The showy ray flowers are what we call the flower petals; the ray flowers are not fertile and are there to attract insects (and humans) to the flower.

Many species are “rhizomatous” - the plant increases over time by extension of underground roots; several of these are considered by most to be too aggressive for the average garden. It’s important to recognize this characteristic in any species being considered for a small space. One species even has edible roots – I’m sure many of you have heard of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). If you want to grow it, just get one of the tubers from a fellow gardener and you’ll have plenty of yellow flowers and edible tubers in no time.

Back of flower, Helianthus

Helianthus flowers look like some of the other summer blooming composites such as Silphium and Polymnia, and some may even resemble black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia). As I pointed out on the post about Rudbeckia, examining the back of the flower can be very helpful in identification.

In the garden, Helianthus can be a welcome mid-to-late summer perennial. While most species are suitable for drier conditions, the wet-tolerant swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) is a beautiful addition to rain gardens and average moisture sites. In my area it is a tall plant that lights up a garden in mid-October. People stop to ask what it is!

Helianthus angustifolius
Towering over other plants - Helianthus angustifolius

I enjoy having these cheerful natives in my garden - here are some of the ones that I have:

Helianthus atrorubens
Helianthus decapetalus

Helianthus divaricatus

Helianthus atrorubens is known as the purpledisk sunflower or Appalachian sunflower. It is one of the few to have basal leaves and one that does not spread by roots according to my personal observation.

Helianthus microcephalus

Helianthus decapetalus is known as the thin-leaved sunflower. The leaves are not thick and coarse like most of the others. This is a very aggressive spreader.

Helianthus divaricatus is a more shade tolerant species, often growing on the edge of woodlands, spreading by roots to form a very linear colony. This especially robust looking one was growing in a field, however.

Helianthus microcephalus is known as small-headed sunflower; it often has multiple clusters of the small flowers blooming at once.

Another annual form is quite famous - Helianthus porteri is known as the "Stone Mountain daisy". Pictures of this plant are courtesy of my friend Karen who lives near Stone Mountain, GA.

Helianthus porteri
Helianthus porteri

Another good reason to have sunflowers is that birds love the seeds. Leave the spent flowers on the plant to attract songbirds throughout the fall and even into winter.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why Aren't You Growing Blueberries?

Blueberry season is finishing up at my house. We've really enjoyed having the fresh berries this year and the bushes were loaded with them. As I was picking enough to make a second batch of jam, I thought to myself - why doesn't everyone in the south grow blueberries for themselves?

Blueberry fruit ripens gradually, giving you weeks of berries

If you tell me you don't have enough sun to do it, I will understand. Blueberries do need about 6 hours of sun (either morning or afternoon) to set blooms. But that would be your only excuse! All the other reasons you can think of won't work:

  • clay soil (nope, they're fine with that)
  • lazy gardener, don't want to spray for bugs (nope, pests are not a problem)
  • want ornamental plants only (nope, they are good looking and have great fall color)
  • hate fresh fruit (oh, well perhaps you have me on that)
The flowers are beautiful in early spring

I have five bushes now. Two were planted in 2004 and the other 3 in 2008. Before you plant some, here are some things you need to know:

  • blueberries are native shrubs (Vaccinium spp.) that are pollinated by native bees
  • nurserymen have cultivated these natives into berry producing machines
  • UGA has created a home blueberry growing publication that is very helpful for gardeners throughout the state
  • blueberries benefit from cross-pollination so you need to get at least two different names
  • be aware that there are early, mid and late season blooming ones - so pick ones that work together (two early ones or two mid-season ones, etc.)
  • they love being mulched and lightly fertilized by compost
My first blueberry cultivars were 'Tifblue' and something else (lost that tag). The second set are 'Climax' and 'Premier'; if you look at the UGA chart you'll see that I've mixed early and mid-season ones to extend my berry season. I probably get six weeks of berries this way. I must say that 'Climax' is by far the best of the group. The berries are large and juicy, and the flowers drop cleanly from the berry. They go easily from bush to eating! I love to eat them warm from the bush (and since I don't use any pesticides they are deliciously ready).

Jam !

This was my first year attempting to cook with them. My brother suggested using them to make jam while we were picking a large amount. We combined fruit and sugar in a 2:1 ratio (2 cups of fruit to one cup of sugar) and cooked it for 45 minutes. It was delicious and easy!

I continue to eat a few ripe ones each time I pass the bushes, but I suppose the birds will get the last few berries. Soon the butterflies will lay eggs on the leaves and caterpillars will appear - it often happens in late summer. The birds will eat those too. The remaining leaves will turn bright red in the fall, pretty enough to rival any of those foreign burning bushes!

So think about having some blueberry bushes. You'll like them and the bees and birds will too!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer Flowers In The Mountains

My recent trip to the mountains was obviously too much to cover in one blog entry! For those of you keeping track, this is part 3 of my efforts to communicate what I found there in late June. Part one was about the great laurel, Rhododendron maximum, which was apparently in the throes of a “super bloom” this year. Part two was about my hike to Gregory Bald to see the famous hybrid swarm of native azaleas there. This is my last installment and basically covers everything else.

Beebalm, Monarda didyma
While it might seem odd to write about plants in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (TN/NC) in a blog about using Georgia native plants, one must realize that plants recognize no state boundaries and many of these same plants are found in Georgia. Trips to natural areas always inspire my sense of creativity by observing how nature has arranged them. I also get a chance to see how well they flourish in natural environments. For example, I saw some amazing large groups of red beebalm (Monarda didyma) on sunny roadsides throughout the park.

Fern in a log, can I recreate this?
Nature's original dry stream bed

Plants that I saw which are already familiar to me, besides the beebalm, included turk's cap lily (Lilium superbum), jewelweed (Impatiens spp., both I. capensis and I. pallida), tall phlox (Phlox paniculata), beetleweed (Galax urceolata), drooping fetterbush (Leucothoe fontanesiana), and a lot of partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and Solomon's plume (Maianthemum racemosum), just to name a few.

Lilium superbum
Photo by Sara

Impatiens pallida

I also had a chance to see some plants that I haven't seen growing in the wild before. These included the Blue Ridge St. John's wort (Hypericum mitchellianum), the native southern bush honeysuckle (Diervilla sessilifolia), an unusual blueberry with gorgeous flowers (Vaccinium erythrocarum, known as southern mountain cranberry), red spruce (Picea rubens) and Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), two new species of Viburnum (V. lantanoides and V. lentago), Michaux's saxifraga (Saxifraga michauxii), mountain ash (Sorbus americana), and teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens).
Diervilla sessilifolia

Hypericum mitchellianum

Vaccinium erythrocarum

Abies fraseri

Saxifraga michauxii

Viburnum lantanoides

If you are interested in exploring the trails in the Smokies, a great guide for hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the one by Kevin Adams. It covers 82 different trails and gives great directions and extensive descriptions.

 A good website for timely wildflower reports (what is blooming now) in the Smokies is here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Azaleas in the Sky - Gregory Bald

The flora in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an amazing collection of Southern Appalachian native plants and communities, and I love to explore the hiking trails in the park and look at the plants (many of which also grow in north Georgia). This year we vacationed in the area in late June, and it occurred to me that I could hike up to Gregory Bald and see one of the most talked-about group of native azaleas in the Southeast. So I did.

The view from Gregory Bald: grass, azaleas, shrubs, trees and a view

The azaleas found on Gregory Bald (elevation approximately 4949 feet) are considered to be a "hybrid swarm" of several different species that bloom in a wide range of colors throughout June. According to Don Hyatt (click to his page for more information and pictures): "The diversity in flower color seen among azaleas on Gregory is considered to be the result of a natural hybrid swarm of at least four native species including Rhododendron arborescens, R. viscosum, R. cumberlandense, and R. calendulaceum."

Without knowing the species, I'll have to just call this one "Pink"
I have heard mention of the azaleas on Gregory Bald for many years, and I've seen the results of propagation from seed collected there. The azalea collection at Southern Highlands Reserve is from Gregory Bald seeds. The natural hybridization ensures that you never know what you'll get from that seed until the plant is mature enough to bloom.

Red and orange were the majority at this time

White ones had bloomed earlier, but I found these last blooms

There are at least two paths to Gregory Bald and we took the Gregory Ridge Trail one; it is 5.6 miles in and out (a little over 11 miles total). The climb in elevation is 3020 feet so it is rated as "difficult". The length of the trail and the change in elevation means that you pass through a lot of different plant communities. The lower elevations were beside Forge Creek and were thick with blooming great laurel (Rhododendron maximum) and smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). Prevalent plants that had finished blooming were buffalo nut (Pyrularia pubera), Solomon's plume (Maianthemum racemosum), and partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). Company on the trail included a few people but also hundreds of dark green grasshoppers that jumped out of the path, creating soft pat-pat sounds on takeoff and landing.

As we climbed higher we entered a very hot and dry area with mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), blueberries (Vaccinium), Galax, whitetop aster (Sericocarpus spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). 

We were certain that we'd have to hike the rest in hot, dry conditions but then we entered a shaded area that gradually became cool and moist. I spotted blooming yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), and even a late-blooming goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus). Ferns were in abundance all along the steep slopes, and we climbed higher and higher - always wondering how much further and why didn't someone put mile markers on this trail? Our trip was brightened by an encounter with a buck in thick shrubbery. He seemed just as curious as we were and, by moving slowly along the path, we were able to pass him and even snap a few pictures.

Finally we passed someone coming down who said that it was only another 30 minutes and, most importantly, that the azaleas were still blooming at the top! With renewed energy we charged forward along a thin, grass-lined trail that offered glimpses of blue sky ahead. Off to the left I spotted a couple of bright orange azaleas blooming in an open, sunny area.

Reaching the top was a surprise - at first I wasn't sure if the area was the top. A red azalea was the first one that I saw and then there were more ... and more. Many were standalone shrubs (see first picture) but others were engulfed in blueberry bushes. I had read about how the park service is hacking down blueberries (and blackberries) to keep them from overtaking the azaleas. We tried to help the cause by eating some of the ripe ones!

Blueberries surround this azalea

Trees on top included oaks, pines and even a serviceberry (Amelanchier); all were rather stunted and shaped by the wind. There were many different grasses, blackberries, and the bright yellow blooms of Blue Ridge St. John's wort (Hypericum mitchellianum). Of course the views are amazing, and you feel like you're on top of the world!

Thanks to my husband for volunteering to go along even though he knew it would be a long and difficult hike. We arrived at the parking area at 9:20 am and reached the bald at 1:15 pm (stopping for lunch around 11). The trip back down was a little quicker - perhaps just under 3 hours. In the end it was a great adventure on a well-maintained trail with a happy ending.

Almost at the top and the photographer lags behind

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Great Laurel - Rhododendron maximum

It was a treat to be in the mountains this past week during the peak bloom time for great laurel, Rhododendron maximum. Usually I visit the mountains in the spring for wildflower viewing or during the fall for foliage, so being here in late June is different. The June flowering plants are a modest group compared to the spring show, but the great laurel is amazing this time of year and it is putting on a great show.

Great laurel, Rhododendron maximum

Our summer vacation this year was in Gatlinburg, TN which is on the edge of the Smoky Mountains. From the moment we drove into Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Cherokee, NC it was apparent that we were in for a treat. Rhododendron maximum is a dominant part of the plant community in much of the park, particularly along the drive through. Any other time of year it is a thick tangle of undergrowth, a tall gangly shrub with long, leathery leaves that droop and curl during freezing weather. Come June and July, these shrubs light up the forest with millions of large white bell-shaped flowers held in clusters on branch tips and scattered on the forest floor when they drop. Now that they are blooming, one realizes just HOW prevalent this plant is!

The blooms of Rhododendron maximum really light up the forest

Great laurel is native to much of the eastern part of the US; the range spans from Georgia to Maine and it is most common in the mountainous parts of that range where it can grow up to 40 feet tall. It does produce seed in capsules, but much of it's growth occurs through root sprouting. It tends to create large colonies where it grows, outcompeting other plants and creating a closed canopy with very little undergrowth - including its own seedlings! In many areas I saw thick carpets of low growing groundcovers like Galax urceolata and partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) on the sunny edges of the thickets. A taller herbaceous layer of ferns, Solomon's plume (Maianthemum racemosum) and violets (Viola spp.) was evident as well.

Pink form of Rhododendron maximum

While blooms are usually white, the buds before they open are pinkish and occasionally we would find open blooms that retained a pink blush. That is the nature of nature, of course, that color forms may vary and even some reddish forms have been found and used to create cultivars.

Of note: According to the website,, "The confusing names 'Maximum Roseum' and 'Maximum Album' are both most likely R. ponticum hybrids that probably do not contain any R. maximum."

Rhododendron catawbiense

This is not the only evergreen Rhododendron in the park, and I was fortunate to find a few last blooms of Rhododendron catawbiense at high elevations (around 5000 feet) near the top of the Alum Cave Bluff trail. This shrub is normally found at higher elevations and is at peak bloom time earlier than the great laurel.