Sunday, October 28, 2012

Carex Like You Mean It

Grasses and grass-like plants are overlooked by many gardeners – they are plain and messy looking compared to clipped lawns and don’t have showy flowers. Wait, they have flowers? Who knew?
Carex laxiculmis flower, in April

While many folks might consider them all “grasses”, they aren't; For the most part they fall into the familiar 3 groups: sedges, rushes and grasses. In fact you might have heard the familiar rhyme (which comes in several forms). The first one is my favorite:

“Sedges have edges; rushes are round; grasses are hollow right up from the ground”. 

Another version of this poem is, "Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have nodes and willows abound." Or “Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses are hollow, what have you found?” And one more that you might find useful: “Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have joints.” All of these are meant to offer clues for identification.

Carex laxiculmis leaf blade

I have lately become very fond of sedges which are known botanically as Carex.  More of them have found their way into cultivation, and I was charmed into purchasing a few of them. But I have also learned how to identify them and have been able to find several different species in the wild and in my own yard (the wooded section).

So what does it mean that “sedges have edges”? Several sources describe the arrangement as having “triangular stems” – there are 3 edges as if the blade was V-shaped. One might consider that one edge is a ridge that runs down the center. Of course you can also identify it by ruling out the other two: the leaves are not round, so it’s not a rush. And it’s not a grass because there are no joints and the leaf is not hollow.

Garden worthy features of Carex include being mostly evergreen, being shade tolerant, growing in a clump form, and being fairly deer resistant. (But not cat resistant – they will try to eat them as they think they are grasses too.) Take note of what I said  – deer resistant. Yep, I’m growing them right out in the open and they have not eaten them. They have eaten the Virginia creeper vine and the azalea right next to them, but they have not eaten the Carex.

Carex laxiculmis 'Bunny Blue'
The first one that I got was a nursery purchase. The common name is spreading sedge and it is Carex laxiculmis 'Bunny Blue'. This is an arrangement of 3 plants purchased as quarts. I liked the blue-green color, and it has been a beautiful addition to the more cultivated area in my garden. It has spread a little, and I have been able to easily pot up the babies for a donation to the GNPS spring plant sale.

Carex plantaginea

Shortly thereafter a friend gave me two small pieces of Carex plantaginea that she rescued in North Carolina with the native plant society. What a handsome plant! The quilted texture of the leaves is a great addition to the garden, and the small plants are now robust clumps (but no babies in sight).

As you can see, Carex are handsome plants. There are hundreds of different species native to the United States, many native to the southeastern US. Across the different species there are a range of different leaf colors, leaf widths and lengths, and growing conditions. Many are shade tolerant but others grow in the sun, especially morning sun. They are found in habitats that  range from dry to wet and all in between.

Unknown Carex

Now that I am more aware of sedges, I see a variety of species in the woods wherever I go.  Here is one that popped up in a pot of Trillium that someone gave me. It's a keeper. When it flowers this spring, I hope to identify it.

Carex is one suggestion if you're looking for a native replacement for Liriope, a non-native plant often used for edging. You can see the resemblance.  

Carex is #6 on the list of perennials that support native Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) as a host plant, so the usage of it instead of a non-native plant is even more beneficial.

Carex pensylvanica

So I hope you will consider using Carex in your garden.  I think if you try one, you will soon become as enamored as I am. The many varieties of texture and color are sure to offer you a chance to use several species.

Now I think I'll go outside and plant this last one that I bought ... the fine bladed texture of Carex pensylvanica was irresistible, and I heard it does well in dry shade. I have just the place ....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dependable Fall Color

This is the dangerous time of year when it comes to driving – I have a hard time keeping my eyes on the road as I pass woody plants in their coats of fall color. Nature does a great job of creating colorful arrangements of red, yellow and orange in the wild landscape. Grape vines (Vitis spp.) winding through evergreen pines, hidden until now, reveal themselves with vibrant yellow leaves while wild sumacs (Rhus spp.) turn a brilliant red on dry ridges.

Oaks can have great fall color
You can recreate this color show in your own landscape by choosing trees and shrubs that are known for their fall color. Native plants have some of the best color – they are the plants coloring up the North Georgia mountains and creating beautiful vistas in State Parks. If you’re looking to identify some of what you see in the wild, you may want to look at my posts on fall color: the yellows and the orange/red/purples.

When selecting plants for your own landscape, decide if you’re looking for a particular color. Perhaps you already have a good selection of plants that turn red in the fall and you want to add some yellows. As always, evaluate your site conditions too – most plants that provide the best colors are full sun plants and many are large trees. Make sure you have the right conditions.

Parking lot red maples, likely 'Autumn Blaze'

Trees and shrubs that provide dependable red/purple color in the fall (all of these are medium to large trees unless noted otherwise):

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) has good color and is fast growing.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) cultivars like 'October Glory' and hybrids like Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze'. The species red maple is quite variable in color and may not even turn red.
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) species and cultivars like 'Wildfire' and 'Red Rage'.
Dogwood (Cornus florida) has amazing red color; it is a small tree and needs part shade.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has a range of fall color from pinks to purples.
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is a shrub; look for cultivars like 'Merlot' and 'Henry's Garnet' for best color. 'Little Henry' is a dwarf form.
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) is a family of shrubs; purchase cultivated plants and get both summer fruit and good fall color.

Dogwood on the left, Sourwood on the right

Sassafras has great orange color

Hickory (Carya) is the tall yellow in many wild areas
Trees that provide dependable orange color in the fall:

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is often overlooked until fall when the screaming fall color grabs everyone's attention.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has a great fall display as the tree changes from green to orange in a wave of color from top to bottom.

Trees that provide dependable yellow color in the fall:

Hickory (Carya spp.) is the tall yellow color in almost every beautiful roadside display. The deep butter yellow leaves remain on the tree a long time, gradually fading to brown.
Smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) has both interesting flowers and good color.
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a large shrub that has much better color than red buckeye. The yellow drooping leaves make a handsome display for several weeks.
Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) turns a soft clear yellow, quite unlike the orange of northern sugar maple. It is at home as an understory tree in the woods around me.

Bottlebrush buckeye

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus)

Trees and shrubs that provide a mix of colors:

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is not a tree that most people deliberately plant, but the kaleidoscope of colors on the same tree can make you appreciate the ones you have.
Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) is a rather small maple with an attractive range of colors.
Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) shrubs such as mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) and blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium) have wonderful fall colors.
Fothergilla (Fothergilla major) is a spring blooming shrub that you can appreciate again come fall.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is handsome year round thanks to fall color and peeling winter bark.

Fothergilla major
Remember – a bit of green makes the colors pop so be sure to mix in a few evergreens like pines to complement your red, orange and yellow foliage.