Archives for July 2012

The Viburnum and the Disappearing House

‘Shasta’ viburnum, earlier this year

Shasta viburnum is a nice, short way to say Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Shasta’, or doublefile viburnum.  I’ve been fond of this plant for a long time. Here’s why:

(1) It’s covered with layers and layers of snow-white flowers in spring. (2) Its dense, lateral branches provide year-round shelter to birds, plus hiding places for deer (or so they think). (3) The flowers are followed by red berries that turn glossy black — that is, if the birds let them last that long. (4) Shastas grow fast and are architecturally dense. (5) They make wonderful screens. We planted seven or eight three-gallon containers of Shasta on the hill near the house, staggering them about six feet apart. Within a few years, the plants were wide and tall enough to block out the view of the neighbor’s house above us.

The downside: (1) These plants sucker badly at the base. This of course makes them form a thicker screen, so it’s not all bad. (2) At my house, seedlings pop up in other parts of the yard. They revert to the species form, which does not have rounded, scalloped leaves. (3) They root deeply and grow quickly — again, a mixed blessing. (4) The nursery trade sometimes sells plants that are labelled Shasta, but are really Marie’s viburnum or ‘Mariesii’. I suspect this may have been the case with my plants; they’re supposed to be 6-8 ‘, when they’re actually closer to 10 or 12’.  For our purposes the added height and width is no big deal — the better to keep my neighbor from seeing all the nefarious goings-on at the house below!

My favorite doublefile viburnum is ‘Summer Snowflake’. I have one in the back yard that, from a distance, looks like a very healthy, narrow-form flowering dogwood. It’s always a barometer for dry soil, but toughs it out pretty well between rains. More and more, I’m liking and recommending the native viburnums, especially blackhaw (V. prunifolium) and possomhaw (V. nudum).

Everybody’s garden needs a viburnum or two … more if you want wildlife, beauty, and a little bit of privacy in the ‘burbs.

Bluestar and the Fluffy Bunches

Fluffing Up

Outside the kitchen window,

Under a juniper-bush shade, 

 We keep a trough where the birds go, 

  And bathe themselves quite unafraid. *

This birdbath, outside our kitchen window, was a birthday present from my mother and dad many years ago. It had a concrete base originally, but I found an artistic-looking sturdy metal base to replace it. The top is very heavy, so it’s not an easy job to move it up and down the the hill to various settings, trying to find a place that is both appealing to birds and protected from hawks and other predators. But every time, the birds said ” No, thank you ” to my offering for beverage, hygiene, and recreation. I had just about given up, figuring the birds preferred the nearby creek over a smallish concrete bowl.

Last summer, I tried a new place:  against the rock wall, next to the falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’) and underneath the Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrectii) that cascades over the wall after heavy rains. Finally ….. success! Birds love this little shangri-la for drinking, bathing, and cavorting. They perch on the falsecypress a while, then go over for a sip or dip —  back and forth, over and over. It’s hard to get photos, because the wall is just outside the kitchen window, and the birds see my reflection and fly away.

At our previous house, the view from the kitchen window was of mountains and very old oaks. Now, the views are up close and more confining. With my avian friends so near, though, the trade seems worth the sacrifice.



* Selected from a poem I like called “Bird-Bath”,  by Australian poet Geoffrey Dutton. In another verse, he notes how “the little fivetail finches …… splash in fluffy bunches”.  Fluffy bunches: such a good description of when birds bathe en masse! To read the entire poem, visit the online Australian Poetry Library here.

Mystery in the Commonplace: A Different Black-Eyed Susan

Last week, I needed to be at the NC homeplace, and just happened to time my visit for a period when the temperatures barely reached 65 degrees during the day. This was such a welcome relief from the energy-sapping, plant-wilting weather of East Tennessee. I almost felt guilty being in such a comfortable setting, knowing how much farmers and elderly people and animals are suffering from the drought and heat. Yet, even the mountain reprieve would not last — temperatures were expected to go back up to above-normal levels within the following week.

In a burst of energy one cool morning , I decided to weed a small bed at the end of the driveway. A lone black-eyed susan was blooming (and probably on its way to the compost pile like so many before it). Up close, I saw a distinct difference between this plant and countless others:  there was a double row of petals on about half the flowers; most of the others were in a state of transition between single and double — or  maybe even triple.

I had planted Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ (Gold Storm) in the early 1990’s, like virtually every other gardener in the world, I suspect!  (The rudbeckias were named by Linneaus in honor of his botany professor Olaf Rudbeck back in 1740. In 1999 the Perennial Plant Association named ‘Goldsturm’ its plant of the year.) Over the years, my original plantings have colonized as they usually do, but I’ve never seen a seedling with double flowers. I read that there is a double form of Rudbeckia hirta called ‘Maya’, but this has never been planted here — only Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’.

Whatever natural descendancy created it, I like this little plant and will keep an eye on what it does in the future. I will try to propagate it by seed and cuttings, and see what happens. This very tiny “don’t take nature for granted” occurrence is just an example of the way nature brings surprise into the ordinary. Even the most commonplace plant can be a treasure in the garden, if you take time out to notice.


Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, a way to share what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th day of each month.

Click Beetle: Here’s Looking At Ya!

Since my son works outdoors a lot, he comes across unusual things in the natural world. He sent this photo of an exotic-looking bug he saw on a parched bed of mulch yesterday. It’s a member of the click beetle family called an eyed elater (Alaus oculatus). If it gets stuck on its back, its hinged thorax makes a clicking sound and springs him/her into the air. (Click beetles have short legs and can’t get a grip on the ground to upright themselves like spiders or long-legged insects would).

This species of click beetle is immediately recognizable by its spotted wing covers and the two large black circles on its head which look like space alien eyes. The real eyes are small and closer to the tip of the head; the illusory ones are thought to help make the beetles appear larger (and more scary) to predators.

While some species of click beetles are destructive pests that destroy potatoes and other crops, the elater beetle is considered a beneficial insect. The adults, which can reach two inches long, have a modest appetite and feed mainly on plants. Their larvae are more voracious, eating large quantities of harmful wood-boring and other insects.

For more information about the elater beetle, check out this link and the video below, which demonstrates the clicking sound these interesting little creatures make: