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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.

A New Reason to Love Goldenrod

Goldenrod is an important fall food source for honeybees and native pollinators.

I’m digging the goldenrod right now.

It’s such a lovely shade of yellow and is blooming in the most unexpected places.

I’ve been using it in flower arrangements and photographing it.  Every time I closely inspect it, I find honeybees and native pollinators foraging there.

Goldenrod is a really important late season food source for these pollinators.  I’m convinced that the extra food stores help my honeybees to make it through the winter.

The most common goldenrod around here is Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).  I weed it out of my flower beds because it is an aggressive grower.  I leave it for my honeybees though along my nature trails.

Roughleaf goldenrod does well in prairie gardens or more manicured beds.

Two of my other favorites, sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) and rough goldenrod (Solidago rugosa),are well behaved enough to earn a place in a flower bed.

There are many other landscape worthy goldenrod species.  But… in spite of their wildlife benefits, ease of cultivation and knockout fall color I rarely see goldenrods in landscape plantings.

Native plant lovers and beekeepers have been giving goldenrod a lot of positive press for years.  But still every fall, I am surprised how many people claim that they are allergic to goldenrod.

Goldenrod pollen is sparse and relatively heavy.  It is designed to be transported by insects.  So… how in the world do these people think they are inhaling goldenrod pollen?

I staged this picture to compare leaves and flowers of common ragweed, giant ragweed (center) and Canada goldenrod.

Instead, of course, fall allergies that occur when goldenrod is blooming are likely caused by ragweed.  Ragweed is wind pollinated.  It produces lots of lightweight pollen that is designed to float through the air.  It drifts on the wind to other ragweed plants and up the nose of anyone who happens to be breathing in the area.

I realize this is old news to most people but seriously this year I have heard dozens of people complaining about goldenrod allergies.  The thing that annoys me the most about this is that I seem to be unable to stop myself from correcting them.

But I didn’t know everything about goldenrod.  Last week I discovered goldenrod tea.

My research indicated that goldenrod has anti-inflammatory properties and is a natural diuretic that is really good for your kidneys.  According to my reading it was said to have a pleasant taste.

I found that interesting because I have in the past tasted herbal teas that invoked the gag reflex.

I said to myself – “I must have some of this goldenrod tea.”

Goldenrod tea is tasty!

Later that day I was making a flower arrangement.

When I stripped the lower leaves off the goldenrod, I saved them.

The next day I added them to boiling water and let them steep for about 20 minutes or so.

My husband and I drank the tea iced and both of us thought it tasted remarkably like green tea.  It was really good.

I researched a little more and found that leaves and flowers can be used for tea.

When flowers are added, the goldenrod tea prevents allergies!!!

We tried a tea made from the flower/leaf mix and found it to be a little more bitter but still not unpleasant.

I liked goldenrod tea well enough that I plan to gather enough to have tea this winter.

I’ll try not to harvest too much goldenrod though.  My girls down in the beehives need it too.

 

Freebies

 

Woodrow enjoys hanging out with the spider lilies on our creek bank.

Lately I’ve been enjoying some of the humble plants that came with my land.

We bought most of our 6 acres, a parcel at a time from our neighbors, Eddie and Margurite Chestnut. 

Margurite was (and still hopefully is) quite the gardener.  She planted her own yard to the nines but we also notice remnants of Margurite’s landscaping through the woods and along the creek. 

I’m not sure if these plants were deliberately planted or if she just dumped out yard waste and it took root. 

At any rate some of the plants like English ivy are quite annoying.  

Others are not too invasive and are mildly entertaining – like the occasional clump of cast iron plant. 

And then there are those that we are quite fond of like the spider lilies which recently blossomed profusely. 

This was a good year for spider lilies.  I had never noticed them along the creek bank but in late winter we initiated a massive privet clearing effort that allowed the sun to come in.  The results were spectacular.

I do love wildflowers and even though the spider lily (Lycoris radiata) is not native, it does not seem to displace indigenous plants.  Hopefully it is helping to hold the creek bank. 

Maybe spider lilies are less offensive to me because they stay below ground for a great part of the year.  When the leafless blooms burst from the ground in early autumn they are like beautiful party girls popping up out of a cake.

Our most common bushy aster is blooming now in the Bee Meadow.

I’ve also been admiring our most common aster.  Years ago Sidney McDaniel identified it as Aster dumosus.  It has since had a name change to Symphyotrichum dumosum.  On the internet I recently learned that it is called bushy aster or rice button aster.  We just always thought of it as “our” aster.

It is a white frothy little thing that appears any where there is a little sun and lack of mowing.  It glows in the late afternoon light.

Last Sunday we had some very enjoyable company – our friends Danny and Rebecca Brantley.  We were all sitting out along the creek burning a small stick fire for amusement.   We talked about life and laughed at each other’s stories.  

The spider lilies were waning.  And the bumblebees were foraging on a bushy aster nearby.  Their gentle buzz almost put me to sleep

That’s reason enough to love a bushy aster. 

It reminded me of a line from an Ian Campbell song that Kate Wolf recorded “In the park, the dreamy bees are droning in the flowers among the trees…”

Spider lilies for days and dreamy asters – that’s a lot of free entertainment.

Frost in August

Here in Mississippi we’re in the midst of the oppressive heat of August.

I’m not complaining.  It’s just a fact of life.

But still – it’s August… in Mississippi…

Unless I stay indoors with the ac cranked, there is not much relief.

I can take a soak in the cold tub and dream of Paradise Falls for a while.  But… you can’t stay in the tub all day.

So I do all my gardening early while it’s still a little cool.  Then I opt for a cruise in the golf cart from one patch of shade to the next.

I pause at the Bee Meadow and watch the honeybees fan themselves on the “front porches” of their hives.  Then I linger to study the flowers.

This is the season of yellow daisies.  Sweet coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), orange black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida) and starry rosinweed (Silphium asteriscus) offer their golden blossoms to the sun.  The grasses (switch, big blue, Indian and Eastern gamma) are their stalwart companions.  The heat does not discourage these robust beauties.

But looking at all those warm orange and yellow blooms seems to make more sweat trickle down the back of my neck.  And looking at the grasses makes me itch.

 

Whiteleaf mountain mint and switch grass grace the Bee Meadow in August.

I am refreshed a bit though when I set my eyes on  the frosty bracts of the mountain mint that is blooming now.

Whiteleaf mountain mint (Pycnanthemum albescens) is among the last native mints to bloom here.  In July tiny purple spotted flowers make their appearance surrounded at first by white edged leafy bracts.  By August the first frost comes and the entire bract turns hoary white.

 

Here's my best attempt to capture mountain mint's frosty white bracts.

I am not the only one who is drawn to the mountain mint.  A steady stream of pollinators visits the flowers.  At every viewing, I usually see at least four or five kinds of native bees and flies.    When I lean in close to study an unknown pollinator the mountain mint releases a heady mint scent into the air. Ahhh!

Last weekend I managed to identify an unknown pollinator that has intrigued me for over a decade.  The first time I saw this bee relative, I described it as an iridescent purple dirt dauber.   I’ve seen it regularly over the years but only when the mountain mint is in bloom.

So… I set out to solve the mystery and after a wasted hour (in the ac) on the computer, I determined that the mystery pollinator was a giant black wasp.  This is a gentle ground nesting wasp.  Usually the males visit the flowers and they cannot sting me because they have no ovipositor.

 

The giant black wasp is busy foraging on refreshing mountain mint nectar.

The females are far too busy to sting because they are hunting, stinging and carrying paralyzed katydids back to the nest to feed the youngsters.

The giant black wasp has a slender thread-like waist.  It is commonly close to 2 inches long.  In certain light it appears to be black but soon the sun illuminates metallic purple pigments.  It is quite striking.

So for a few moments I forget that the heat is hanging heavily around me and that the humid air is almost too liquid to breathe.  I am transfixed – I watch the giant black wasps forage.  I make note of the tiny sweat bees, the flower fly and a mysterious pollinating fly.  All of them are headed for the frosty bracts and minty nectar of the whiteleaf mountain mint.

I look past them all – hoping to see a giant black wasp mama flying toward her nest burdened by a stupified katydid.

I have not seen her yet.

But… there is still tomorrow!

Bee Meadow Update

We have had a rainy summer and the Bee Meadow has prospered.

During late June and July, wild bergamot or beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) and purple coneflower (Ecninacea purpurea) dominated the space.  Since beebalm is a member of the mint family, it is very aromatic.  On hot days, it wafted like incense and we could smell it as we approached the meadow.  The place was buzzing with all sorts of insect pollinators as well.

My friend Denice Kopf enjoyed the beebalm, purple coneflower and native grasses during her visit in late June.

The beebalm and coneflowers seemed to bloom forever.  Through most of July they were still going strong.

During July the orange butterfly weed bloomed for a second time and the purple liatris 'Kobold' chimed in.

A first sighting of a plant is always exciting.  This year I had the first blooms on the shiny coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida).  I planted it 3 years ago and had seen foliage but no blooms.

Rudbeckia nitida glows in the bee meadow with native switch grass and a mass of beebalm.

The finger false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis) had bloomed before but this year with all the rain it was spectacular.  This species is native to Louisiana and Texas but not to Mississippi.  The plant was given to me by Jessie Johnson.  She dug a small start for me from the meadow at Briarwood.  So, of course, the plant is very special from an aesthetic point of view as well as an emotional one.

 

The physostegia is one of those rare plants that is as beautiful in bud as it is in flower.

I will say that the buds are very intriguing – like beautiful rows of niblet corn.  But … the flowers are not too shabby.

Physostegia flowers are strking!

And this brings us up to date.  It is now August.  The grasses are robust and the yellow daisies are in full bloom.  The whiteleaf mountain mint is frosty in spite of the heat.

I don’t think I have ever gotten so much enjoyment from a gardening effort with so little work!

An August update will be forthcoming.

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!

 

 

The Ever Entertaining Bee Meadow

As those who subscribe to this blog have probably noticed, I have been on hiatus.  I have probably published only two blog posts this year.  Hopefully I am about to get back on track with this update on the Bee Meadow.

Newcomers to this blog can search “Bee Meadow” and read 12 or so posts that tell the story of this native pollinator planting that was installed in 2010.

I have discovered that the hill in my neighbor’s back yard is the perfect vantage point for taking photos of the site.

Ursaluna looks like a black bear headed off to rob the honeybees in this late April shot taken from my neighbor's hill.

During April we had a few scattered prairie phlox  and yellow false indigo flowers but mostly a carpet of white clover.  Now in mid-May, more flowers are blooming and budded.  This week the first flowers on the starry rosin weed (Silphium asteriscus) appeared.

Starry rosin weed shows off the chunky bracts that make up the silphium's unique involucre. The chunky bracts help to distinguish rosin weeds from sunflowers which have much narrower & pointed bracts.

Yellow false indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) has been blooming for a couple of weeks.  Since there is diversity in the population of plants, they all bloom at slightly different times.

Woodrow meanders behind a lovely yellow false indigo. This one came from my friend Allen Anderson in South Mississippi and is always the last to bloom.

I’ve noticed that my dogs enjoy grazing on a spring tonic of goldenrod and big bluestem leaves.

After snacking on goldenrod leaves, Dotsie pauses to admire the prairie phlox.

I have decided to photograph the Bee Meadow at regular intervals all summer.  I’ve chosen vantage point near the prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) and will try to shoot from the same spot each week.

Since it looks as if we have four robust bee hives this year, I also hope to be spending time here harvesting honey!

 

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.

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!

 

 

 

 

Location, Location, Location

I’ve been traveling a little bit.  A few days ago when I returned home, I greeted my husband, walked the dogs, exchanged pleasantries with the cats then headed back to the front yard to check for any new developments in my most recently planted bed.

I’ve made several posts about this bed beginning in April when my friend Marc helped me plant it.  The soil is compacted and gravelly since it was previously a part of the driveway.  I chose the toughest possible plants and they were charged with the task of providing a screen as quickly as possible without getting into the power line above.  I had been collecting rocks for some time and I planted some sandstone tube rocks vertically and edged the bed with small pieces of petrified wood given to me by my friend Pete.

I know that Maybell loves this bed because she enjoys perching on the rocks.  I think I am obsessed with this bed because every time I get in my car or return home I walk right past it.  I have ample opportunity to study it a close range. The bed has a severe problem with goosegrass and I do most of my weeding a little at a time on the way into the house often with the mail and my car keys in one hand.

The Loblolly bay and St. John’s wort that were the stars last month are through blooming.  They are growing well and have crisp clean foliage.  Unfortunately two of my star bushes (Illicium floridanum) have not fared so well.  They have succumbed to a wilt disease.  The third star bush still looks fine.

I am considering various replacement plants.  The replacements will need to be evergreen for screening.  They will need to be less than 8′ tall so they can stay below the power line.   If they are at all related to the star bush they are likely to be susceptible to the soil borne fungus that killed their predassessers.

My strategy for dealing with the heavy horrible compacted soil was to choose mostly tough native plants – prairie species in particular.

Right now the ‘Henry Eillers’ sweet coneflower is giving a stellar perfomance.  This selection of the native (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) has narrow rolled petals that look like quills.  I love the wild species and this cultivar is just as beautiful and florifourus.

My ‘Cassandra Loos’ marsh mallow (Kostelezkya virginica ‘Cassandra Loos’) is in full bloom and is attracting a constant stream of pollinators.  This wonderful plant was introduced by my friend Greg Grant and named in honor of our sweet departed friend, Cass.

I have one antique rose in the bed.  “Marechal Niel’ is a Noisette rose that was introduced in France in 1864.  It was named for Napoleon’s Minister of War and was renowned for being a yellow reblooming rose.   A former student gave me my first ‘Marechal Niel’.  I rooted many cuttings and gave them away before losing my stock plant.  My friend Lydia Fontenot was kind enough to give a cutting back to me.  That’s why it’s always a good policy to share plants.  You then have somewhere to go begging if you kill the original.

All in all this bed has been quite entertaining.  The star bushes didn’t make it but everything else has.  And trust me – it IS a difficult site.  I stroll past it every day, though, so I know every inch of that nasty compacted soil and I have the utmost respect for those plants that have thrived.

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..”


				
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