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And So It Goes

Our threadleaf Japanese maple was beautiful last fall.

About 20 years ago when we were still in the nursery business, my husband Richard took a roadtrip to some wholesale nurseries in Semmes, Alabama near Mobile.

He returned and gleefully presented a beautiful young 3 gallon threadleaf Japanese maple that he had purchased from Steven Sowato.  Richard was particularly impressed the the skillful graft that was done high on the trunk (so that the graft scar would be hidden by the foliage).  We speculated that his prize was probably a 3 year old plant.

We owned our own nursery and had little time to garden.  We kept this little gem as a container plant.   And so… through the years it grew and flourished.  We moved it to various sitting places – always in a prominent spot – and greatly admired its beauty.

Ten years passed.  The maple was residing in a 15 gallon black nursery pot and was in need of a bigger pot.

I was in the midst of landscape renovation and I set it into a plum position in the center of the back garden at our newly purchased house.

R. I. P.

And another 10 years passed.  We looked down on it from our bedroom.  We photographed it decked out in autumn crimson.

We moved next door to our old house and still visited it almost every day on our evening golf cart rides.

A couple of months ago we began the move back next door.  I had mixed feelings about this transition but was looking forward to the view of the maple from my bedroom window.

One day I noticed early fall color and then something seemed awry.

I looked closer and was shocked to realize that my maple was dead.

Logically I knew that it probably succumbed to a verticillium wilt disease brought on by stress from drought and heat and hurricanes.

Joe enjoys carousing in our dead maple.

But still I was in denial.  I kept scratching twigs every time I passed – hoping for signs of life.   It still has the same beautiful form and all our friends said “It looks so natural – just like it is sleeping.”

Attracted by the crispy crackle of the leaves, the kitties began to romp about in the branches.  I shooed them away – still in denial.  Oddly my reaction reminded me of the time my hound Doreen ate one of my Born shoes and I kept the other one for two years just in case the situation could be remedied.

Then… the telling sign – a fecund bloom of mushrooms sprouted at the base of the trunk.  Even I could not argue with such strong evidence.

Sister Maybell likes the crispy leaves.

Still though,  I have not cut it down.  I’ll let it linger through the fall.  I could probably even let the pretense continue through winter.

But I know now that it is a pretense.  I am looking for a replacement – something unrelated to the maples and un-susceptible to the deadly fungus that lingers in the soil.  I’m considering a large containerized ironwood that like its predecessor needs to be released from captivity.

But for the time being,  I’ll admire what’s left of the lovely form and let the disrespectful kitties dance on the grave as often as they like.


 

The Cassandra Loos Marsh Mallow

The small fuzzy bud was the size of an English pea when I first noticed.

The bud reached this stage and seemed to stay that way for days!

It’s always exciting to see a new flower for the first time.

It’s even more of a thrill when the flower was named for someone you know.

Just last week I admired the first flower on a new marsh mallow variety named in honor of my friend Cassandra Loos.

Since Cass passed about this time last year, she has been in my thoughts.  So when I first noticed a fuzzy English pea sized bud on my Cassandra Loos marsh mallow I studied it with great anticipation.

I visited the plant in my nursery daily and watched as a rosebud pink color developed.

The Cass-teletzkya's overlapping petals seem to form a starburst in the center of my first fully opened flower.

Then very slowly over several days, the bud began to unfurl.

Eventually my patience was rewarded and I finally observed an open flower.

The morning dew was heavy and the overlapping petals glistened.  The deep pink color was lovely.

I took a ton of pictures and then just paused to admire a sweet memorial for my kind and witty friend.

Kosteletzkya virginica ‘Cassandra Loos’ was bred and selected by our friend Greg Grant.

Greg is a horticulturist, plant breeder, author and Gardens Research Associate at the Stephen F. Austin Arboretum.  Greg chose this mallow for its large flowers, deep pink color and overlapping petals.  It has already been distributed to several wholesale growers and should be available for purchase next year.

I do believe that Cassandra would have liked it.


 

 

 

 

Summer???? Azaleas

Doreen admires the plumleaf azalea in my back garden.

A good many yeas ago I discovered that four native summer blooming azaleas will grow in my part of Mississippi.  Three of these species – swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum), hummocksweet azalea (Rhododendron viscosum var. serrulatum) and sweet or smooth azalea (Rhododendron arborescens) – are actually native to parts of Mississippi.  A fourth, the plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium), hails from only a few counties in Alabama and Georgia.

It took a while for these summer blooming beauties to grow on me.   At first summer blooming azaleas like the 1980’s fad of summer sweaters seemed not quite right – a concept out of sync with the seasons.

After living with the plumleaf azalea as a garden plant, I have changed my mind (about the summer azaleas anyway).

My point of view was altered after a visit to Callaway Gardens.  I became enchanted with Callaway’s signature plant, the plumleaf azalea.  I found a local nursery called Lazy K and bought several plants from the proprietor, Ernest Koone.

I planted my azaleas in filtered shade and slightly acid soil.

I had doubts about whether they would bloom or even survive in our ridiculously hot Mississippi summers.  The plants, however, thrived.

I learned later that the plumleaf azalea is normally found in steep ravines that tower over creeks or rivers.  If I had known this from the beginning, I would have probably never even tried to grow them.

This jewel was blooming today a few feet from my front porch.

But now, as July approaches, I walk out my front door and am greeted by crimson azalea blooms.  I have seen hummingbirds sipping nectar from the flowers as I washed dishes at the kitchen sink.

I wander through the back garden and am dazzled by a 12′ plumleaf azalea in full flower.

I’m glad I didn’t do more research and instead just took a chance and decided to grow an appealing flower.

But mostly I’m glad that the plumleaf azalea never saw a USDA Distribution map and learned that it was not destined to grow in Mississippi.


 

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.


 

 



 

Okra Hydrangea

This 'Semmes Beauty' inflorescence contains both pristine white sterile florets and tiny creamy fertile florets.

I recently blogged about the exotic mophead hydrangea which I do dearly love.

My favorite hydrangea though is actually our native oakleaf hydrangea.

Hydrangea quercifolia is native to the southeastern United States and cold hardy to zone 5.

This shrub is usually found on wooded slopes growing in rich well drained soil.  It was first discovered and named by John Bartram in the late 1700’s When Bartram was exploring Georgia and Florida.

Oakleaf hydrangea or Okra (pronounced oak-ree) hydrangea has large lobed leaves similar in shape to a red oak or an okra plant.  The leaves are bold and hairy and often have wonderful burgundy fall color.

Older specimens develop peeling cinnamon colored bark.

Wild oakleaf hydrangeas are draped along the steep slopes on I-20 coming into Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Oakleaf hydrangea has a long cylindrical panicle shaped inflorescence.   It is pure white gradually taking on a pink hue as it dries on the plant.

The blossoms are composed of two types of florets.   Tiny inconspicuous fertile florets mature into small brown rounded seed capsules.   The more showy sterile florets are white and similar to paper cutouts.

These hydrangeas grow best if shaded during the hottest part of the day.   Eastern exposures with morning sun and afternoon shade are usually ideal.

Soil must have good drainage.   If soil drainage is less than perfect, plant on a slope or a slight mound so the rootball can shed water.

If soil is acid, add a little lime or a calcium containing fertilizer.  In the wild, plants thrive in soils with pH near neutral.

'Snowflake' blooms cheerfully in my front garden.

I have collected several forms of this beautiful native.  ‘Snowflake’ bears showy semi-double sterile flowers.  ‘Semmes Beauty’  is a large flowered selection from Mr. Tom Dodd.  I have also collected seed and have a form that I found along the Chunky River near Dunn’s Falls.

Like the mophead, this hydrangea blooms on old wood.  Plants can be pruned after flowering by heading back the taller stems to shape as needed.

Be sure to leave some stems with dried flowers, these will produce blooms for next year.

This hydrangea is so lovely that I would certainly hate to miss a year’s bloom!


 

 

 

 

 

 

High-Geraniums!

This lovely mophead hydrangea is blooming now in my back garden.

Mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) was part of every garden I remember from childhood.

Usually they were situated on the north side of the house in perpetual shade.

In early summer the huge rounded flower clusters looked like giant scoops of ice cream.

These hydrangeas are native to Japan but probably were first introduced into China before they made it west to Holland.   The Dutch grew them in greenhouses and introduced new varieties into other European countries.

The mopheads are cold hardy only to Zone 6.  In the U. S. they are strictly a southern thing and southern gardeners have truly embraced then.

The sterile flowers of this lacecap hydrangea look like paper cutouts. The tiny fertile flowers are in a cluster toward the inflorescence center.

Most hydrangea bloom clusters are a combination of showy sterile flowers that look like paper cutouts and tiny fertile flowers that can actually produce seed.   It is easy to see both these flower types in a lacecap hydrangea inflorescence. The mophead cousins have only sterile flowers and are not capable of producing fruit capsules or setting seed.

The hydrangeas of my childhood were usually pink.  I grew up in a town that was situated on Blackbelt prairie soil.   The soil was derived from limestone and so pH was high or alkaline.  In this type soil there is little free aluminum and mophead hydrangea blooms are often pink.

As a result, the blue flower clusters were more exotic to local gardeners and many resorted to chemistry to obtain the desired hue.   Iron sulfate, aluminum sulfate or ground sulfur were used to lower the pH.  The resulting acid soil contained more free aluminum and flowers were blue.

Creative gardeners sometimes even put sulfur compounds only on one side of the shrub resulting in a half pink / half blue / purple in the middle blooming shrub.  It was also common practice to bury rusty nails when planting one of these hydrangeas.  As the nails continued to rust in the soil they served as a timed release source of iron and the blooms remained blue.

During the years that I worked as a retail garden center salesperson, I sold lots of mophead hydrangeas.  They were also called bigleaf hydrangeas, garden hydrangeas, French hydrangeas or even “high geraniums”.

I advised my customers that no matter what they called the plant, it should be sited in an irrigated bed or in a situation where water could be supplied during drought.

Maybell and Joe Bob are quite taken with this mophead hydrangea flower.

The most common cultural question that customers asked me was about the pruning needs of the plant.  This hydrangea blooms on old wood.  In other words, if the shrub was cut to the ground or burned back during a hard winter it would skip a year of bloom.    So old established plants can be pruned like any old fashioned shrub – by cutting one third of the oldest stems to the ground.  Two-thirds of the stems remain and are capable of flowering.  This pruning method also will stimulate new growth from the shrub’s base and enhance the natural mounding growth habit.

Younger plants without so many stems can be shaped by cutting stems that flowered in the current season back to the desired height.  This is best done in summer after flowering when dried blooms are still present.  So a few of the stems with dried flowers can be headed back  and the remaining stems will surely bloom the following season.

The mopheads are not what I would call a subtle plant.  They are startling in full bloom with huge leaves and many rounded unusually colored flowers.

I think their main claim to fame is their usefulness in floral design.  Fresh flower stems will last for days.  They can then gradually dehydrate in the vase or hanging in a dark well ventilated area.  They retain their color and are popular in wreaths and dried flower arrangements.

Most old varieties bloom for about a month in late spring and early summer.   A few cultivars do bloom on new wood and so can rebloom through the summer whenever new stems are produced.  Penny McHenry, a hydrangea expert in the Atlanta area, discovered a reblooming variety that is called ‘Penny Mac’ in the trade.

A similar reblooming variety was patented and given the name ‘Endless Summer’.

I don’t much care for the concept of  an “Endless Summer”.  Here in Mississippi most of us are well over our romance with summer by the middle of July.   The thought of an endless Mississippi summer makes my head hurt.

So… I usually spec ‘Penny Mac’ on my landscape drawings.  It does rebloom and is cheaper because it is not a patented plant.


 

 

 

 

An Eclectic Azalea Collection

This is how my indigenous wild honeysuckle azalea stand greets me in spring. I regret that there is no "scratch and sniff" option for this photo!

I have been m. i. a. from the blog pretty much since spring hit.   I’m busy in spring and like to be outdoors.  Also a WordPress upgrade went bad and I lost all my subscribers and could not blog for over a week.  So if you were a subscriber, please sign up again.

During that week I lost the blogging habit.

The good news though is that I continued to take photographs.

And so… even though the flowers have waned, I must blog about azaleas.  They are gone but not forgotten and I have the pictures to prove they were here!

First I must mention my favorite of all – the native wild honeysuckle azalea a.k.a Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens).    This is the native azalea in my neck of the woods.  It is found in large stands mostly along creeks and rivers.  The flowers are in rounded clusters with individual florets looking somewhat like a pink to white honeysuckle flower.  The scent is a heavenly honeysuckle like fragrance.

I have planted many nursery grown specimens in my shaded back garden but the showing I love the most is an indigenous stand near my old nursery.  These beauties came to us along with our first land purchase.  They are in bloom usually in mid-March for barely two weeks.  If I am busy and fail to give them the proper amount of admiration, I grieve for weeks after they are gone.

About nine of them live on the top of a hill – a remnant of the pre-existing woods.  I can barely see them through the trees from my back deck.  In full bloom they seem to cluster together like a bevy of teenage girls – all dressed up to go to the mall and claiming their space with a bit too much perfume.  Ahhhhhh!

Doreen rambles through the Florida flame azalea bed along our creek.

The Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) is a similar native azalea with yellow to orange blooms.  I have not see this one in the wild in my county.  I have collected nursery plants from several locations and am establishing a bed that blooms yellow, orange and white near the creek.  The white comes from a few fledgling Alabama azaleas (Rhododendron alabamense) by the way.

During bloom season these golden beauties reveal themselves from a great distance and beckon me nearer.  They are loud for sure but I relish our time together.

My current favorite exotic azalea is an Asian hybrid with uncertain origins.  It is a lavender spider flowered azalea called ‘Koromo Shikibu’.   The unusual flowers sport narrow drooping petals that are marked with deep violet blotches.

The unusual 'Koromo Shikibu' azalea blooms in spring and fall.

‘Koromo Shikibu’ is very fragrant and has attractive velvety evergreen leaves.  Plants tend to bloom in fall as well as spring.  They also produce scattered red autumn leaves.

I am possibly enamored of ‘Koromo Shikibu’ simply because I look forward to sticking a few blooming stems in my autumn flower arrangements.

But… I do love the unique flower form and I must admit, that I just like saying ‘Koromo Shikibu’.

I do not have an azalea garden by any means.  Still these gems are an important part of my spring garden.

Each year I smile when the first blossoms of these azaleas appear.  I am happy to see my old friends decked out in their spring finery once more.


 

 

As Durable as a Cast Iron Skillet

This beauty waits patiently for her haircut. She thrives in terrible soil and dense shade nestled in a sea of mondograss beneath the old Professor Sargent camellia.

When I moved into my house about 25 years ago, a couple of cast iron plants came with the landscape.  Over the years they have thrived and gradually attained an amazing girth.

Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) is an Asian lily relative.  Its 30″ bold coarse textured leaves impart a tropical appearance to the landscape.   With time this aspidistra slowly forms robust clumps from underground rhizomes.

Cast iron’s common name was certainly given due to its durability.   It thrives in dry shade where most other plants languish.   I would rate it as the easiest plant to grow as long as it is sited in a shady exposure with good drainage.  It is hardy through USDA Zone 7 and used as a container plant further north.

Around here, we haven’t had a freeze in almost two weeks and there is none in the forecast.  I have been running around like a maniac getting my garden ready for spring.  One of my goals for this year was to cut back the cast iron plant.

My plants have not been cut back since before Hurricane Katrina so needless to say they have many tattered leaves.  Removing the old leaves will provide space for the fresh new leaves that are about to emerge.

A view from the deck after the carnage. The large clumps in the foreground have been severely trimmed and the two behind are waiting their turn.

I started working on a massive clump in the front yard on Monday.  It took an hour and produced a substantial mound of leaves for the compost.

My friend Steve came over to help with the garden work  and he is cutting back the rest for me.

Yesterday he found a piece of statuary that had been swallowed by a particularly formidable clump of cast iron in the back yard.

There’s no telling what other treasures this project will unearth.

Due to the thinning, I might even find cast iron’s diminutive brownish-purple flowers.  They are borne at ground level and in their native habitat are pollinated by tiny soil-dwelling crustaceans.  The blooms are star-shaped and are normally hidden in the foliage.

I’ll be on the lookout!


 

My Favorite Meatball

Dotsie admires a mature winter daphne in my landscape.

Some of my favorite plants are those that bloom in winter.

Winter Daphne or sweet Daphne (Daphne odora) is near the top of the list.

As the name would indicate, sweet daphne is extremely fragrant.   Since insects are few and far between during the dormant season, daphne doesn’t play around.   Instead she emits an intense honeysuckle-type fragrance that wafts through the garden to attract any insect in the vicinity.

Profusions of daphne flowers are borne in small rounded clusters beginning here in February.  They are usually pink  and rarely white and are preceded by beautiful and colorful bud clusters.

Daphne has Asian origins and attractive glossy evergreen leaves.  The dark green leaves are a perfect background for the light colored blossoms.

The dark evergreen leaves are a perfect foil for the light pink or white flowers. Be sure to scratch and sniff!

Winter daphne is low and mounding – shaped somewhat like a low wide ottoman.   It is one of the few meatball shaped shrubs that I will allow in my garden.

I’ve found this plant to be quite easy to grow.  It tolerates all kinds of soil but seems to need some shade during mid-day in summer.

Unfortunately it is fairly short lived.   My original daphne lived for about five or six years before it died of a wilt disease called southern blight.

I was hooked, however, and so I quickly replanted.  Now I have about six daphnes scattered throughout my landscape.

They are just beginning to bloom now and will continue for about a month.

The smell of daphne ushers in the spring.


 

A Blog-iversary Gift from The Professor

After four decades, Professor Sargent is still going strong.

Today is the one year anniversary of the day I started this blog.

It’s my Blog-iversary!

I think that today it is fitting to write about the Professor Sargent camellia that grows just outside my kitchen door.

Fess came with the house.   When I purchased the place in 1985, Fess was probably about 15 years old.

I took one look at him, turned up my nose and proclaimed (in a whiny voice) “I don’t like camellias.  They get scale.  I’m going to cut this down and replace it with a cool plant.”

But then, fortunately, I got busy for a month or two and left Fess alone.  Fall rolled around and then winter.  I still had plans to terminate Fess but then… in December he presented me with a bounty of beautiful red flowers.

The girth of the Professor's trunk is quite respectable now that he's 40 or so.

The flowers were double and jam packed with petals.  They reminded me of red carnations but the camellia enthusiasts describe them as having a peony or anemone form.

That year, Fess bloomed from December until May.  The ground was littered with spent blossoms.

I filled my vases again and again with rich red blooms – even in the dead of winter.

I was hooked.

I did some research and found out that ‘Professor Sargent’ dates from 1925 or earlier.  The camellia possibly originated in Charleston’s Magnolia Gardens and was named for Professor Charles Sprague Sargent who was then Director of the Arnold Arboretum.

‘Professor Sargent’ is a Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) with evergreen foliage and robust growth.  In old gardens the plant can attain a height of 30+ feet.  I pruned mine into a multi-trunked small tree and it is close to 20′ tall.

After my first winter with Fess, I was embarrassed that I had ever considered chopping him down.

As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards once said,

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find…
You get what you need…”

The Buddha is happy to be adorned by one of the Professor's crimson blossoms.

So apparently I needed Fess.  He is with me still – 26 years later.  He is pushing 40 at least and has earned a place of honor in my garden.

I look forward to his first December blossoms and consider him to be my finest Christmas tree.  I have danced with his flowers in my hair!

On the down side, Fess is very difficult to photograph.  I tried for years and never got a decent image.  But then, I realized that my rental house which was in the background provided an unsuitable backdrop.  I repainted the rental house with Fess in mind and my photos have greatly improved.

So here’s to ‘Professor Sargent’ – one of the elders of my garden – may he live long and prosper.

And thanks to those who have visited my blog this past year and listened to my ramblings  – may you live long and prosper as well.


 

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