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A Gift from New England

New England aster blooms with a fall coreopsis.

I am ridiculously happy every fall when the asters start busting out around here.

One of my favorites, the New England aster (Symphyothichum novae-angliae), is just starting to bloom.

I first learned of this aster when I was in college.  I was having difficulty keying out a beautiful royal purple aster because I couldn’t possibly believe that a New England aster was growing in Mississippi!

But it was indeed!

It turns out that New England aster ranges from Canada south to Mississippi and Alabama.

New England aster is a great garden plant but in the wild I have learned to look for it in sites with prairie soils.

Bumblebees love it!

A couple of years ago as I was driving to visit my mother I spied a nice little stand of New England aster in full bloom.  As expected, they were growing in a prairie remnant.

I stopped to admire them and made note of the location.  

I returned a few weeks later and gathered seed.  

Asters can be difficult from seed.  Some years the seed look viable but most are empty.

This time, however, I hit the jackpot and ended up with a whole flat of little New England Aster seedlings.

I have one of these planted out front in the driveway bed.

This Monarch butterfly was nectaring on a New England aster in a prairie near here.

I walk past it  every day and usually pause to admire the beautiful fringed flowers.

The bumble bees are often lingering nearby as well.

New England aster is a great nectar plant for bees and monarch butterflies.

Plants are robust and can reach 6′ height in full sun.

I’ve always wanted to go to New England to see the fall color.

For this year anyway, a trip to the front yard is as far as I’ll need to go.

More Bee Meadow, Please

I’ve been ailing this spring.   Sciatic nerve pain has prevented me from doing many things that I love – like gardening…

This new condition has made me even more appreciative of the plants that grow with little or no maintenance.

Because of this, the Bee Meadow is one of my favorite spots these days.

In mid-May, I vowed to post regular pictures of the Bee Meadow.  The last were posted on May 15.

Here is the latest installment.

This shot was taken on May 26, from my neighbor's hill. Richard is lounging in the golf cart as Woodrow meanders through the meadow.

The orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) has been the highlight of the planting recently.  This native milkweed is beautiful in bloom but I am hoping it will provide a food source for the Monarch butterfly caterpillar.

The orange butterfly milkweed is a beauty right now.

This New England aster always provides a few early flowers.  The main bloom time will be in fall when the bees are in need of forage.

This New England aster came from my friend, Jan Midgley. According to Jan it dependably offers some blooms in early summer.

The bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) is just beginning to bloom.  It is a wonderful plant for all the pollinators.  I love the scent of the blooms and the leaves.

Yellow rosin weed and a robust eastern gamma grass sing backup for the lovely lavender bee balm.

So there you have the latest installment.  But… fear not, there is much more meadow to come!

 

 

Pyro-Milkweed

At first, I wanted to grow butterfly milkweed mainly for its glowing orange blooms.

For years I tried to establish orange butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in my garden.

But.. something always seemed to go wrong.

Part of my problem is that this milkweed is a sun-loving roadside plant and my garden has lots of shade.

Eventually I found  out that the object of my desire would grow just fine in a prairie that was annually burned.  So – I began to situate my plants in my praire plot and in the sunny bee meadow.  Since then all has been well.

But I wanted more plants and I wanted them to be from my locale.

I had tried buying and planting seed with poor results.  This was probably because the seed were old. Then, of course, I had the dilemma of not knowing where they originated.

It's best to collect milkweed seed before the brown seed with silky tails erupt from the pod and float away on the breeze.

So I decided to break the code and start collecting and growing plants from fresh local seed.

I collect when the follicle or seedpod is mature in size and just beginning to turn tan and crack open.  The seed inside should be brown – not green or white.  This takes persistence – usually several visits to check on ripeness are required.  Since the first flush of flowers in early summer rarely mature into seed, I do most of my collecting in late spring and early fall.

After collecting, I store the pods at room temperature or in the fridge in a paper bag until I can process them.  They will become moldy in plastic.

I isolate the seed from their silky/fluffy “tails”  prior to planting.  If the pod is barely cracked open, I firmly grasp it to hold the seed inside and gradually pick the fluff out – a very tedious process.

Lately though – I’ve been using a trick I learned from my friend Jan Midgley.  As Jan says in her book,  Native Plant Propagation:  “… Place the seed with tails attached but fluffed out on an old metal tray.  In a place with no wind, toss a lighted match on the seeds and poof, the fluff is gone.  This treatment may even improve germination…”

I’ve been using this trick to clean my seed for a couple of years now.  Since I am something of a pyromaniac, the process always brings a smile to my face.

So – the cleaning is over in a flash as you can see in the You Tube video below.

YouTube Preview Image

The seed can then be stored in the fridge for planting next spring.  Or if it is early enough in the season,  I soak the seed overnight, roll it in a moist paper towel and stratify it in the refrigerator for four to six weeks before planting.

This may seem like a lot of work but, planting this and other milkweeds is crucial if we want to save the monarch butterflies.  Monarch caterpillars feed solely on milkweeds and a few milkweed relatives.

All sorts of butterflies like this spicebush swallowtail sip nectar from milkweed blooms. The plant's leaves are essential food for monarch caterpillars.

The Mississippi Native Plant Society is now collecting milkweed pods to send to Monarch Watch.  The organization is stockpiling seed to be used to restore milkweed stands.  The Monarch Watch seedbank apparently contains little or no seed from Mississippi and some other Deep South states.  For more information about the Bring Back the Monarchs Campaign, click here.

But back to my original quandry.  All of my issues with growing butterfly milkweed have been in part solved by fire.

A quick burst of flame removes the fluffy seed tails and cleans the seed.

Since the parent plants will thrive after a  late winter prairie burn, they can be planted in the few sunny areas in my landscape.

It’s a beautiful thing!

 

 

 

 

A Day in the Prairie – Part II

Yesterday – I began documenting my recent trip to visit prairie remnants in the Bienville National Forest near the town of Forest, Mississippi.

The day began when a fairly large and diverse group of people assembled for a Mississippi Native Plant Society sponsored field trip to see the purple coneflowers in bloom at Harrell Prairie.

We all had a great time following our trip leader Heather Sullivan through the prairie – admiring the flowers and the butterflies.  But… around lunch time the majority of attendees had experienced enough sun, heat, thirst and bug bites.  They headed for some a.c. and cold beverages.

Meanwhile, I fell in with 3 other die-hards and we continued the foray.  My companions were Jennifer Heffner, Toby Gray and Rob Anders.

According to Wikipedia, there are 68 identified prairies in the Bienville National Forest.  Toby had set up research plots in some of them as part of his Master’s Thesis in Landscape Architecture.  He drove us to a few of the sites and we continued our exploration.

We spent most of our time at the largest site which is near Homewood, Mississippi.

The Homewood Prairie has lots of butterfly milkweed.  The southern dogface butterfly sipping nectar here is a common resident of the prairie.   When the wings are open, the markings resemble the outline of a dog’s head.

My most exciting moment of the day was when I came within 6 feet of this nest and flushed out the Mama turkey.  I’m not sure if I shrieked or squealed but I did make some sort of loud sound of alarm!

The narrowleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) was blooming with purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

I took this picture of  Toby, Jennifer and Rob clustered under a spindly persimmon just to prove that there can be shade in a prairie.

Despite the heat and bug bites, I was delighted to spend the day gawking at wildflowers with these kindred spirits.

Summer Stars

Gordonia or loblolly bay sports pristine white camellia-like blooms.

Several months ago with the help of some friends, I planted a wonderful new bed in my front yard.

The bed is situated on abysmal compacted soil that used to be part of the driveway.  The horrible soil is riddled with chunks of gravel.

My plant palette consisted of mostly native wetland and prairie species.  Surprisingly, due to the tenacious nature of these contenders, almost everything I planted has done really well.

This spring I enjoyed the ‘Forest Frost’ phlox, zig-zag irises and the Virginia sweetspire.

Now that summer has rolled around, a new set of stars have taken center stage.

Just this week the gordonia or loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus) produced her first flowers.  I chose the gordonia for this bed because it is evergreen and will grow tall enough to provide some screening.  Also its narrow upright growth habit should allow this tree to fit into my small space without encroaching on the power line.

Gordonia flowers look like single white camellias with a tuft of cheerful yellow stamens in the center.  On close examination, you can see that the white petals are bordered with a fine fringe.  Instead of withering on the plant, the flowers fall off while the petals are still white.  As the tree matures, we can drive in on a carpet of flowers every June!

The bumblebees and other pollinators love Bedstraw St. John's Wort.

Behind the gordonia a beautiful native Bedstraw St. John’s wort (Hypericum galioides) is blooming non-stop.    The flowers are golden with puffy clusters of stamens in the center.   A constant parade of bumblebees travel to and fro with their baskets full of pollen.

This is a souvenir plant.  I grew it  from cuttings collected on a float trip down the Chunky River.  The glowing blooms remind me of happy times canoeing with my pal Peter Loos.

Nearby the ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Raydon’s Favorite’) is throwing a crop of unseasonably early blossoms.   I have grown the straight species aromatic aster for years but this is my first experience with this cultivar.  I am impressed so far by the precocious blooms and healthy deep green leaves.

'Raydon's Favorite' aster is a precocious bloomer.

All these blossoms attract an array of pollinators.  So… every time I step out my front door there is something new to admire.

A swallowtail butterfly sails by…

A gordonia blossom drifts to the ground…

The golden St. John’s wort bobs under the weight of a hefty bee…

And the unexpected asters reflect the perfect June sky…

It all reminds me of a poem I was forced to memorize back in Junior High School.  The poem is the prelude to  “The Vision of Sir Launfel” by James Russell Lowell.

The part I remember best goes like this:

“…There is no price set on the lavish summer,

And June may be had by the poorest comer.

And what is so rare as a day in June?

Then, if ever, come perfect days..”


				

Beautiful Baptisia

This delightful stand of white baptisia is gracing an Alabama roadside. Hope it's still there when I return to get seed.

Here in Mississippi, even though it is only April, we seem to be rushing madly toward the summer.

The baptisia or false indigo is in full bloom unseasonably early.   For me, that lovely perennial wildflower normally indicates that late spring is upon us.

I still remember the first time I saw white wild indigo on a Mississippi roadside.  I was driving in adjoining Neshoba County when I spied a mounding 5′ plant that was covered with white spikey flowers.   I came to a screeching halt and rapidly approached the interesting specimen.  It looked like a lupine on steroids and had curious glaucous blue green leaves that were compound like clover.  The stalks were purple.

I stood and gaped in amazement.

Immediately I knew that this was a member of the bean and pea family.  I even knew that it was a false indigo or baptisia.

The florets sparkle against white baptisia's charcoaly purple stems.

I soon had my find identified to species by my botany professor, Dr. Sidney McDaniel, as Baptisia leucantha, a white blooming false indigo.  At that time, there were 4 or 5 white blooming species listed.  Since then the taxonomists have consolidated all into a single species with two sub-divisions.  So our Mississippi species has become Baptisia alba var. macrophylla.

I returned about 6 weeks later and collected a sack full of the lovely purple inflated bean pods from the plant.  I shucked them out as if I were shelling butterbeans and soaked them overnight to kill a pestilence of weevils.  In spite of the bugs, I had great germination and soon added this baptisia to our nursery list.  I am glad I did because the highway department eradicated the mama plant and all her kin the next year.

This strain of yellow baptisia from south Mississippi is happily blooming in the bee meadow.

Later I started visiting the Cajun Prairie in Eunice, Lousiana, where I discovered and fell in love with the yellow baptisias.  To me the most beautiful of the several species of yellow false indigos is Baptisia sphaerocarpa.  The plants themselves are smaller than the white species – usually 2′ to 3′ and are sometimes called bush clovers.  The Cajun prairie is full of this lovely plant and in Mississippi we have it in a few southern counties.  I was lucky enough to get a start of our Mississippi strain from my friend Allen Anderson.  Again – it was collected from roadside population that has since been demolished.

Alan’s lovely yellow form is thriving happily in my bee meadow.

Both of these garden gems will cheerfully prosper in any site with reasonable moisture and full sun.  A long tap root allows them to survive drought. They are at home in the baking heavy clay prairie soils in sites that are annually burned.   I have grown them in sunny perennial borders in heavy clay with great results.

In addition to these two species I am fond of a couple of cultivars.  ‘Screaming Yellow’ is a loud yellow selection of B. sphaerocarpa made by the illustrious Larry Lowman in Arkansas.    I haven’t actually seen it in bloom yet since I started with small plants.  However the foliage is a beautiful healthy emerald green and the pictures of the flowers are striking.  ‘Carolina Moonlight’ is a cross between the white and yellow species.  This variety was a volunteer discovered by Rob Gardner in the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Flowers are a pale yellow color and plants are quite vigorous.  This hybrid produces no fruit.

The baptisias are lovely in all seasons.  In late winter they emerge as curious purple-ish shoots that look a little like asparagus.  Wonderful lupine-like  flower stalks appear in late spring.  Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery carries a good selection and calls them “redneck lupines”.

After the flowers are gone, interesting purple inflated pods can be used in floral arrangements or collected and shucked for the seed.  I have learned to collect much earlier than I used to.  I harvest as soon as seed pods begin to turn from green to purple.  The seed inside should have just turned tan.  Plant them immediately and they will sprout in a couple of weeks or so.

Or… you can leave the pods for ornamentation.  Then for the rest of the year – except in the dead of winter – cool blue foliage provides the perfect backdrop for other flowers.

These baptisias are pest free and extremely long lived unless they encounter the staff of your local highway department!

 

 

 

Mellow Mallows

Turk's Cap Mallow's scarlet blooms attract hummingbirds and yellow sulfur butterflies.

As I’ve said before, I am very appreciative of the plants that came with my house.

Some of them are wild plants that migrated in from the fields and woods.

Others like the Turk’s Cap Mallow (which is native to only two counties in Mississippi) were probably planted.

In midsummer during my first year of residence, I noticed that the hummingbirds and sulfur butterflies flocked to a cluster of mounding plants with scarlet pinwheel shaped flowers.

The flower color seemed incredibly intense against the healthy lobed deep green leaves.

I knew immediately that this was some sort of hibiscus relative.   A little research led me to conclude that my mystery plant was Turk’s Cap Mallow (Malvaviscus arboreus).

My brand new feist dog puppy at the time weighed only a couple of pounds but was mean as a snake.  As we brainstormed for a flower name for the puppy we settled on Malva or “Malva Viscious” (no relation to Sid).

So that year I was out in the garden hollering for “Malva”  I also spent hours trying to capture the perfect hummer shot on film.  The Turk’s Cap bloomed from mid summer into the autumn.  I spent quality time with the mallow and used her name quite often.  I was smitten.

Some might think that the startling flower color could be difficult to use in a landscape design.

I have, however, noticed that it perfectly compliments creamy yellow butterflies as well as emerald green ruby throated hummingbirds.

As I wrote this post, I learned that the flowers are edible and can be used as a garnish or steeped to make a tea.

The red pulpy fruit looks like a tiny heirloom tomato and is edible as well.

I plan to make a pot of tea this week.  I’ll garnish a salad soon with a few flowers.   And later in the season I will sample the fruit.

I will report back regarding my culinary adventures!


 

Giant Swallowtail Prevents Blogging

You may wonder why I have not written a blog post recently.

It seems there is a story that will explain all.

A few days ago, I was meandering down the hill toward the nursery when I suddenly spied a giant swallowtail butterfly.

I paused and analyzed the situation.  Then I realized that the butterfly was not where I expected her to be.

I know that giant swallowtail caterpillars prefer to browse on members of the citrus family (Rutaceae).   Adults seek out these plants and lay their eggs on citrus trees, trifoliate orange, rue and wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata).  The caterpillars hatch smack on top of their preferred food source.

I knew that there were three cute little wafer ash trees in my nursery.  I had been watching for the giant butterflies to visit and deposit their eggs.  I had seen none.

Why was this one  rebellious giant swallowtail flitting about in the edge of the woods?  On closer examination, I realized that there was indeed a citrus cousin – the toothache tree or Hercules Club tree (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) – in residence.

So… I hot-footed it back to the house to get my camera.  And when I arrived, she was still there prospecting for the best spot on which to lay her eggs.  I focused in for the perfect shot and she precipitously flew away.

So for days now.  I’ve stalked the site – camera in hand.  I have vowed not to write a blog post until I have a “giant swallowtail on the toothache tree” picture to accompany.

Today I finally put my little foot down and decided that I must blog on.

Surely there will someday be a picture of a beautiful giant swallowtail butterfly lovingly interacting with said toothache tree.  I will post it proudly with much commentary.

For now I’ll post this.

By the way, if I did post the perfect pic of the perfect giant swallowtail butterfly on the tree that has the perfect Latin name, I would have called this post “If You Plant it They Will Come”.

I think that I prefer “Giant Swallowtail Prevents Blogging”.

Hope that doesn’t attract too many pornographers.


 

Bee Balm, Bumblebees and Burns

Bee balm is the most exciting flower in the Bee Meadow right now.

Despite the heat and drought, the wild bergamot or native bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) is blooming now in my Bee Meadow and in the wild.

This weekend I visited a prairie in Scott County that was full of bee balm blooming in harmony with butterfly milkweed, black eyed Susan, prairie clover and narrowleaf mountain mint.  It looked like a wonderful flower garden but the presence of charred wood indicated that the prairie was probably burned in March.

I enjoyed the prairie outing but am also glad to have bee balm close to home.  The flower heads are a beautiful frothy cluster of many individual florets.  In late evening as we approach the Bee Meadow, the fragrance of bee balm is delightful and reminiscent of the bergamot orange peel used to flavor Early Grey tea.

The bee balm blooms seem to glow in the late afternoon sun.

The scent attracts foraging bumble bees and other long-tongued bees, many other solitary bees like carpenter bees, butterflies, hummingbird moths and even ruby throated hummingbirds.

The foliage is aromatic as well.  A few moth caterpillars feed on the leaves but it is unpalatable to the ever encroaching deer.

On our late afternoon nature jaunts, we have particularly enjoyed watching the bumblebees and carpenter bees forage on the bee balm.

Bumblebees are very hairy and usually black with some sort of yellow striping.  They are closely related to honeybees but live in much smaller colonies.  They nest in holes in the ground or in cavities in rotting wood.

This carpenter bee is foraging on narrowleaf mountain mint. Note the smooth rear of the abdomen. A bumblebee would be uniformly hairy.

Bumblebees are especially efficient at pollinating flowers that are tubular shaped with pollen held on anthers deep inside.

They release the pollen by grasping the flower and vibrating their flight muscles.  This technique is called “buzz pollination” or sonication.

In addition to wildflowers, bumblebees are important pollinators of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, blueberries and cranberries.

Bumblebees are even released into greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes and strawberries .  Honeybees are very inefficient at pollinating all these crops so buzz pollination results in more and larger fruit.

Carpenter bees are solitary. They have the annoying habit of tunneling into wood to make their nests.  They are working on my front porch railings this summer.  Male carpenter bees are unable to sting but the females can inflict a painful stab.

In this Scott County Mississippi prairie, wild bergamot and butterfly milkweed are enticing the pollinators all day long.

Like bumblebees, carpenter bees practice buzz pollination.  Sometimes, however, they steal nectar without pollinating.  They bypass the pollen and go directly to the nectar by making a slit in the side of the flower.

At first I was calling all the large bees in the bee meadow bumble bees.  I finally learned that a bumblebee’s entire abdomen is hairy while a carpenter bee is smooth on the rear.

Just as I expected, the bee balms, mountain mints and other wildflowers in the Bee Meadow are attracting some interesting critters and bringing them in close so I can learn.

Bee balm and the other wildflowers mentioned here have a delicate appearance when in bloom.  But they are tough. They will grow in full Mississippi sun without irrigation in 100 degree plus temperatures.

And… they even thrive in areas that are regularly burned.


 

 



 

Further Adventures in the Bee Meadow

The Bee Meadow is surrounded by flagging tape to confuse the deer and keep my over zealous neighbor's mower at bay.

Last November with the help of my friend Tim Kiphart I gleaned a medley of wildflower plants from my nursery and installed them near my bee hives.

I called the planting a “Bee Meadow”.  It was planted in part to sustain the honeybees.  I also intended to learn to appreciate and identify the native pollinators that would surely visit.

The Bee Meadow was planted on an old vegetable garden site that is full of white clover.

So far, the meadow has been quite entertaining. Earlier this spring, prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) mingled with the clover while yellow false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) bloomed in the background.

Much to my surprise, about a dozen larkspur plants (Consolida ambigua) volunteered. They were remnants of the old vegetable garden where I often planted flowers amongst the veggies.

This volunteer larkspur was a pleasant surprise.

I have really been enjoying the larkspur blooms.

I have noticed that a few honeybees and bumblebees visit the blossoms when they tire of the clover.

Last week, however, on a late afternoon golf cart cruise, I spied a flash of red.  I soon realized that a young male ruby throated hummingbird was visiting the larkspur.

I have seen him two or three times now.

Of course I didn’t have my camera.

But still he was beautiful in all his olive and ruby plumage sipping nectar from a deep indigo larkspur flower.

A couple of weeks ago, I pilfered the nursery once more and with the help of my friend Steve Strong added more plants to the Bee Meadow.  The new additions include New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) and various asters, rosin weeds, obedient plants, ironweeds and grasses.

I’m seeing all sorts of butterflies and interesting solitary bees as well as the usual bumblebees and honeybees.

Now that the planting is done I hope to start identifying these strange visitors.


 

 

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