Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pleasing Penstemon

I love alliteration and—when I was trying to think of another “p” word to describe how I feel about beardtongue perennials in the genus Penstemon—I  could think of no more appropriate word than “pleasing” to describe beardtongues. These dependable, bee-supporting, and relatively deer-resistant flowers are a favorite of mine and many other gardeners (who might not even have realized they are native).

Penstemon smallii
Penstemon smallii in late April
Largely composed of North American natives, most species are found in the West. We have 10 reported species in Georgia, of which 7 have county records and 3 are given the benefit of the doubt (those 3 are marked by asterisk in this list): Penstemon australis, P. calycosus*, P. canescens, P. digitalis*, P. dissectus, P. laevigatus, P. laxiflorus*, P. multiflorus, P. pallidus, and P. smallii.

Some of you may be as surprised as I was to realize that the very popular foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) has no specific records of indigenous populations. If we could ask the herbariums what records they have, we might know better but the tool that used to be available is no longer online (  This is a species that is often sold as well as widely shared among gardeners. The burgundy-tinged cultivar ‘Husker Red’ is particularly popular, and I have it in my garden as well.

Penstemon digitalis
Burgundy-tinged Penstemon digitalis

In Georgia, Penstemon flowers are white, pale lavender, and purple (and all the shades in between). The Xerces Society has a great description of beardtongue that I won’t try to restate: “Beardtongue derives its common name for the hairs that line the protruding lower petal of these tubular plants. These hairs serve an interesting function, forcing bees deeper into the flower.  Some Penstemon species also have small protrusions in the flower interior that act like hooks, giving the bee a bit of a squeeze and making them struggle a tiny bit to escape. As they do so, the anthers of the flower wrap around the body of the bee, adhering pollen where it will be perfectly aligned to meet the stigma of the next flower.

If you look into the tubular flowers you’ll notice several distinct lines leading to the back of the flower known as nectar guides. These lines act like runway lights, advertising to bees that “the good stuff is back here!” Source

Right now I have numerous stems of Penstemon digitalis blooming and the air is humming with the sound of bumble bees. I love to take photos of the bees going into the flowers, just their fuzzy rear hanging out.

Penstemon calycosus
Penstemon calycosus
Penstemon calycosus
Penstemon calycosus

These photos of Penstemon calycosus are from a small native plant nursery near me. The plants were robust and happy and full of bees. No matter which species you have, you’ll be supporting bees. I like to say that it isn’t really a picture of a beardtongue if you don’t have a bee butt in it.

Earlier my purple beardtongue (Penstemon smallii) was blooming; just a few stray blooms remain on those plants; that is a species that is also very happy in my yard and I pot up several dozen of them each year to give away (and many friends have it now). They especially love the lawn! I originally bought several of this species from Home Depot; it was grown locally by a nursery that supplies their plants. Also blooming now is the more modest Penstemon canescens. I got this one on a rescue and my friend has propagated it from the seeds of that original plant. The foliage is slightly gray-green on that species.

Penstemon canescens
Penstemon canescens
Penstemon australis
Penstemon australis

This photo of Penstemon australis is from a field trip with the Georgia Botanical Society. I initially was not sure if my rescued plant was this species; some folks on a Facebook group helped me understand how to tell the difference (using the angle of the stems in the panicle of blooms).

More erect on P. australis (left) vs. P. canescens

This late spring group of plants is really a must have for the wildlife garden and you should consider adding it if you don’t have it. I’ve mentioned it in a number of my blogs before, including these:

So You Want to Support Pollinators – Part 2 (the part has the plant lists which include Penstemon)

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Those Confusing Leaves of Three

In our continuing story of ‘paying closer attention to what’s going on at home,’ the subject of identifying poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) came up while talking with my neighbor recently. She had gotten into some accidentally and was concerned with properly identifying it so as to at least avoid it if not actually get rid of it.

Virgin's bower (Clematis virginiana) - 3 leaflets but leaves are in pairs

Young blackberry (Rubus sp.) - prickles are a clue

Many plants either have ‘leaves of 3’ or appear to have them.  To help her learn, I created a small exhibit for her: there was a poison ivy seedling in my yard (close to hers) so I marked it and then put two lookalike sprigs in floral picks next to it: Virgin’s bower clematis (Clematis virginiana) which is very common in our yards, and one of the young wild blackberries (Rubus sp.), also very common. In the spirit of distancing, I told her where to find this exhibit on her own so she could look at the plants.

That got me thinking about how confusing being in the woods must be when you aren’t sure what you are seeing. I walked around my property, taking pictures of many of the things that appear to have 3 leaves. First, it’s good to understand basic concepts: 1) simple leaves vs. compound leaves (poison ivy actually has compound leaves); and 2) leaf arrangement (opposite vs. alternate, poison ivy’s compound leaves are alternate). Here’s an old but basic post that I did about that, so check it out.

Trumpet creeper sprout (Campsis radicans),
notice that more mature leaves have more leaflets

Green ash seedling (Fraxinus pennsylvanica); older
leaves will get more leaflets but new ones may have only 3

Here are a few pictures (there were more, believe me!) of what I found just walking around like my neighbor might be doing. Of course what is even more confusing is finding atypical leaves of anything. We’ve all got a story of finding 3-leaved versions of the normally 5-leaved Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). They usually don’t persist over the whole plant, sometimes it is just the most recent growth and if you follow it back then you should find some growth with the ‘true’ leaf forms. Sometimes young plants have few leaflets (see examples above). I found many examples of hickory (Carya sp.) doing the same thing.

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata)
Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)

Not always obvious is the concept of woody vs. herbaceous. Poison ivy is a woody plant and will eventually have a woody stem (even as a second year seedling). There are herbaceous plants (not woody) that have the 3-leaf look: Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and trilliums (Trillium sp.) are two that quickly come to mind. Of course a first year seedling poison ivy won't be woody but it's something to consider when you find 6-inch-plus tall plants like these below and they have soft stems.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
Trillium rugelii

Another concept that I’d like to mention particularly in regards to seedlings - and specifically Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) seedlings compared to poison ivy seedlings. I see tons of seedlings in my yard, and, in the spring, I often see just the cotyledon leaves. What are those? They are the first leaves to appear from a germinating seed. They don’t usually have the shape of the ‘true’ leaves that follow. They can appear in pairs even if the plant doesn’t later have pairs of leaves (the opposite leaf arrangement). For plants with alternate leaf arrangement, the next leaf—the first true leaf—will appear as a single leaf; for plants with opposite leaf arrangement, the next growth will be a pair of leaves (we’ve all seen those seedling maples (opposite) and sweetgums (alternate) grow like this).

Cotyledons - the first seedling leaves - are different for poison ivy and Virginia creeper;
notice the non-standard Virginia creeper in the center but the baby leaves give it away

Virginia creeper has heart-shaped cotyledon leaves, as shown in the center and right pictures above. Grapes, like muscadine, do as well. My woods are full of both of these—hundreds and hundreds of tiny heart-shaped leaves …. These two plants are both in the grape (Vitaceae) family and that resemblance comes through in their cotyledon leaves. Poison ivy is in a different family and has very simple, like a rounded rectangle, set of cotyledon leaves. Notice the incorrect set of 3 leaflets on the Virginia creeper in the center; Virginia creeper can sometimes show only 3 leaflets on a few of its leaves.

Lastly, should you think you encountered poison ivy (or even to be extra careful), I recently came across some good advice. Don't just wash with soap and water to remove the ivy's oil, use a washcloth to add friction to the cleaning. Our hands alone don't provide enough friction to remove all the oil but a washcloth will greatly improve your efforts. Be sure to take that washcloth (and any clothing you wore) straight to the washing machine to avoid re-infecting yourself later.

The real thing: Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

A healthy, flowering poison ivy vine (flowers kind of hidden by leaves)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Tiny Hands Project

The fallen blossoms of crossvine
(Bignonia capreolata)

I’m seeing a lot of a certain pair of tiny hands lately. We’ve been ‘quaranteaming’ our 2-year-old grandson during the pandemic shutdown, and those little hands are into everything at our house. 

Since we’ve had such beautiful weather, I’ve had many opportunities to get him outside and get those hands into nature. He doesn’t always want to have his picture taken, but he’s been tolerant of holding things for me to take a photo.

This is a collection of those photos (all phone photos, of course). 

In between photos, we are throwing sweetgum balls into the stream, pebbles into the neighbors’ pond, pine cones into a water-filled wheelbarrow, and watering plants like crazy. He loves water. My friend gave him a 5-piece set of the frog life-cycle: egg cluster, 3 stages of tadpoles, and a fully grown ‘daddy’ frog. Those frogs jump in and out of watering cans, pans of water, and bowls of suds. We found one tiny real frog among the pots, but it was too fast to hold onto.

Different pine cones (to him, it's 'big' and 'small')

Iris virginica is a big plant!
Tulip-tree flower (Liriodendron)

We’re gradually learning to appreciate bugs and understand they have a job to do. Small tasks around the yard—potting up small plants, pulling weeds, watering thirsty pots—they are all opportunities to help as far as he’s concerned and he has jumped in with both hands on everything. He loves to help.

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Adding fresh food for monarchs

A snail!
Helping to sort plants

I don’t know when this will end, but it is a time that we are definitely treasuring. Of course I am grateful to have such a yard (and a garden) where staying in place can be a joy, but really that was part of my master plan about using Georgia's native plants in the landscape. Nature lives here, and every moment sharing it with him is just one of my rewards.

A path walked many times, from back yard to front yard

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Understanding Botanical Latin

Eurybia divaricata
Eurybia divaricata
Known as botanical Latin or scientific Latin, it is the tongue-twisting nomenclature rooted (literally) in a language which technically does not exist. According to Wikipedia, it is a language based on New Latin and used specifically for description of organisms. For those looking to identify a plant in a serious way, it is essential—it is how you know what you really have (unlike common names which can be shared by multiple plants and which can have meanings that are not always obvious, such a plant called ‘pineland-ginseng’ which is not related to the other plant with the common name ginseng at all).

I interchangeably refer to the official name of a plant as either the scientific name or the Latin name. It is the name given by taxonomists to plants (as well as all organisms, you may know humans as Homo sapiens). Sometimes the name given never changes; sometimes the names are replaced with new (determined to be more accurate) names but they always keep the old name as a synonym. For example, the New World plants known as Aster are now reclassified into several new genera (‘genera’ is the plural of genus—they were actually split into more than one new genus). What was Aster divaricatus is now Eurybia divaricata. A surprising number of nurseries still call it that.

Botanical Latin is composed of two parts: the genus name which is a noun and is always capitalized (Quercus for oak);  and the species epithet which is an adjective, is not capitalized, and often provides some descriptive information (such as alba, indicating white: Quercus alba). Then the whole thing is italicized. Occasionally, the species name may be hyphenated but remains a single adjective: Athyrium filix-femina for lady fern. Varieties and subspecies may add extra terms beyond the species epithet: Chrysogonum virginianum var. brevistolon for the short-stolon variety of green & gold; or Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis for American elderberry.

Chrysogonum virginianum var. brevistolon
Chrysogonum virginianum var. brevistolon is my favorite!

Let’s talk a minute about the species epithet. It is selected for a number of reasons: it might describe color (alba/white, rubra/red), origin or habitat (georgianum/of Georgia, occidentalis/western), form or habit (maculata/spotted, hirta/hairy, altissima/tall, arborea/tree-like). Occasionally, plants are named to honor someone and the name doesn’t offer any descriptive clue at all (michauxii, porteri, loriae).

The spelling of the species name can vary quite a bit and I believe that might be rooted more in an attempt to match Latin characteristics (male/female). As a fun exercise, I found every spelling of the epithet “of Virginia” that I could (Georgia doesn’t have as many but here’s a blog I did about it):

Claytonia virginica 
Chionanthus virginicus 
Diospyros virginiana 
Veratrum virginicum 
Botrychium virginianum 
Cirsium virginense 
Saxifraga virginiensis

Penstemon smallii, named for Mr. Small
Here is another aspect to spelling to consider. Often the ending of the species name will match the ending of the genus name: Helianthus angustifolius, but sometimes it doesn’t: Prunus angustifolia. It's a pain to have to look it up everytime when memorization fails you.

If I’m struggling to remember the spelling (the aforementioned Chickasaw plum makes me pause almost every time), I use a little trick that I created: I remember another species in the same genus—in this case I think of black cherry, Prunus serotina—and then apply the same ending (the ‘a’ in this case). So far that hasn't failed me but I'm sure there's an exception out there somewhere to trip me up.

I hope this was interesting and maybe even helpful. Here are a couple of resources that I found helpful. Now go out there and memorize the Latin name of your favorite plant.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Scary Spiderwort? Trade up your Tradescantia

Smooth spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
Reaction to mention of the native perennial spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) can be extreme: “Save me from that horrible thug!” Similar to explaining about goldenrod (Solidago sp.), it can be some work to convince people that one aggressive member of the genus shouldn’t put you off from using the good ones.

There are a number of native spiderwort species, most of which seem to be native to Texas, and six are found in Georgia: hairystem spiderwort (Tradescantia hirsuticaulis), hairyflower spiderwort (T. hirsutiflora), smooth spiderwort or bluejacket (T. ohiensis), longleaf spiderwort (T. roseolens), zigzag spiderwort (T. subaspera), and Virginia spiderwort (T. virginiana).

Smooth spiderwort (T. ohiensis) is the one that most people describe as aggressive. Tall, robust, and vividly-blue, you can distinguish it from its relatives by noticing the lack of hairs on the bloom buds (hence the common name ‘smooth’). There might be one or two hairs, but it should be largely hairless. The Virginia Native Plant Society also says: “The smooth spiderwort can be distinguished by non-hairy pedicels and sepals (except for a tuft of hairs at the apex) and its generally glaucous-waxy leaf surfaces.” The foliage might be partially evergreen in Georgia; mine even turns a bit purple some years in winter. I have it in two places and one of them is being covered up by a more aggressive plant—cutleaf coneflower (Rubeckia laciniata).

Smooth spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)

Tradescantia ohiensis

Two of the species are actually named for their hairiness: hairystem and hairyflower. You might think that could be confusing, but they actually have very different natural ranges. Hairystem (T. hirsuticaulis) is one of my favorites and has a variety of different flower shades. Its natural range follows the line of granite outcrops in Georgia. It is perfectly at home in the garden with good drainage. Hairyflower spiderwort (T. hirsutiflora) is naturally found in south Georgia so the only place you’d confuse them would be in a garden that has both.

My favorite color Tradescantia hirsuticaulis

3 different colors of T. hirsuticaulis at Nearly Native Nursery

Tradescantia subaspera (with a little
zigzag in the stem)
Longleaf spiderwort (T. roseolens) is another unique to south Georgia species (and rare); we’d be more likely to see it in Florida. North Georgia has its own species in zigzag spiderwort (T. subaspera), with a few appearances in the upper Coastal Plain (and strangely the panhandle of Florida). The crookedness of its stem is a characteristic for it. I have found it easily during the spring while hiking at Amicalola Falls State Park.

Virginia spiderwort (T. virginiana) has a rather small natural range in Georgia (largely NW Georgia) but has been used in gardens quite a bit. Like the similar smooth spiderwort, it has been passed along from gardener to gardener for many years. Tall like the smooth one, it is distinguished by the small hairs found on the bloom buds.

Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)

A white form of Tradescantia virginiana

There are few Tradescantia relatives (Commelinaceae family) that you might come across as well. Callisia graminea, formerly Cuthbertia graminea and Tradescantia rosea var. graminea, is a small plant called grassleaf roseling that is native to south Georgia. Murdannia nudiflora (dewflower) and Murdannia keisak are non-native weedy plants, the latter infesting wetlands, which you might find. A nearby horse field has the tiny Murdannia nudiflora in the shade by the fence and the flower quite resembles a tiny spiderwort bloom. Dayflowers (Commelina sp.)—both native and not—are also similar but a brighter blue in color.

Thank you for all the support over the years. I didn’t realize it until afterwards, but last week was my 500th blog here. Georgia is a fabulously botanically diverse state and our native flora can beautify and enrich residential and professional gardens throughout the state. Our native plants are what make Georgia be GEORGIA. I hope that the information in this blog helps you to better appreciate and use Georgia’s native plants.