Prickly Pear Cactus and Other Reds: Asheville Botanical Garden

Several weeks in a row I’ve had the pleasure of strolling the grounds of the Asheville Botanical Garden. It’s a place that soothes the spirit and, at the same time, awakens all the senses. If you love nature and native plants, it’s impossible to walk the paths without being sidetracked: a terrarium-size cluster of tiny wildflowers, a wide swath of ferns, a hawk landing at the top of a stately old sycamore.

This year I missed the spectacular show of early spring bloomers like Sweet Betsy  (Trillium cuneatum). But, now — several months later — there is still plenty to admire.

I was drawn to the beauty and intricacies of many plants and habitats, but for some reason everything of red hue jumped out me. It began with the striking display of Eastern prickly pear cactus at the Peyton rock outcrop.


Opuntia humifusa – yellow flowers and red fruits

Often, folks are surprised that there is a cactus native to the southeast, expecting it only in the midwest or other, more arid parts of the U.S. But prickly pear cactus survives on rocky, well-drained areas in the mountains. The red, pear-shaped fruits, often called “tunas,” can be peeled and eaten. This plant can quickly take over space in a garden, if sited in the right environment. Maybe you like the looks of it in the landscape, or maybe you find it slightly jarring to the eye. I thought the display at BGA was striking and pleasing in its rocky setting.


Silene virginica, Firepink, is an adaptive native wildflower that just glowed along the path by Reed Creek. Firepink doesn’t seem to colonize readily — at least I haven’t seen large groupings of it– but one or two is enough to catch the eye. These plants grow in both moist and dry habitats and the long tubular flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds. According to Tim Spira in his book Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont, bees sometimes bore into the bottom of the long flower tubes to rob nectar.


Heuchera or alumroot provides a beautiful contrast to stone and the silvery greys of lichen. It’s a tough, adaptable plant. I’ve seen it growing in the crevices of dry rock outcrops as well as on high-humidity river banks.


Spigelia marilandica or Indian Pink is one of the most beautiful Appalachian natives. It attracts hummingbirds (and stops meandering bloggers in their tracks). There was a grouping of these near the BGA gift shop — quite lovely. Spigelias grow in woodland environments and spread by underground rhizomes.


I could not stop looking at this exotic-looking little vignette. The red bug stayed at this spot a long time. And, reluctant to leave, so did I.

A House in the Woods: Oh the Joys


Getting ready to fill the coffee pot this morning, I lifted a dishrag left overnight in the kitchen sink. This spider — very much alive beneath the damp rag — is what I saw. This spider is what made me all quavery inside as I corralled it into a glass and carried it outside to dump out on the deck.

Either sated by milk or just as shaken as I was, the spider sat motionless for a long, long time.

There was a cardinal lingering in a branch just above the spider. The next time I looked, the spider was gone. Escaped to the nearby rock wall or food for a hungry bird? I’ll never know. I do know I won’t leave a dishrag in the sink anymore.

Wordless Wednesday: Oak Buffet for Pileated Woodpecker

pileated woodpecker on oak stump

Sprouting oak, full of grubs


Outdoor walks bring surprises in autumn. Some are pleasant — others not so much.


Animal skull found in the garden. Possum? Racoon?

Last fall, I came across this skull lying on top of the stone wall in a section of the garden I rarely visit.  The bleached-out, toothy head was nestled in crispy, fallen leaves and lichen. Its hollowed-out face made my heart beat faster — I wondered what fate had befallen this little critter. Did it die a natural death, or was there some trauma that brought about its demise?

I know there’s a whole world of activity outside the house each night when it gets dark and still. I hear strange sounds — owls, deer, insects, and other wildlife that come and go through the night. It’s all mysterious, and part of the natural cycle.

Praying Mantis

Late-Season Praying Mantis

Fortunately, I don’t see many skulls on my daylight walks. I prefer surprises like this praying mantis that caught me off guard yesterday. It was giving me a big-eyed, curious, Happy Halloween kind of stare  as I got ready to hook up the garden hose.

A Garden at Clem’s Cabin

statueclems_mmtnClem’s Cabin is a quaint historic structure located within an urban mix of houses and apartments along one of Asheville’s busiest streets. The cabin and its little compound are the site for garden club functions and community plant sales.

Whenever possible, I’ve gone to the garden club’s annual Christmas greenery sale here. On those occasions, the parking lot has always been full. Today, there was not a soul to be seen– except for St. Francis of Assisi (or whichever patron saint was keeping watch that day).

I had a leisurely visit watching spiders and birds and exploring interesting little nooks throughout the site. The garden areas are small. Overall, the design is formal, with some elements of a kitchen garden. Boxwood hedges and herbs are the dominant plantings. It’s obvious the place is well-cared for, and there a definite sense of permanence, created by stone walls and paths.

I liked the detail on the railing leading up to the front door of the cabin. Notice the spider webs on top of the boxwoods, which looked like mature specimens of ‘Suffruticosa’.


Isn’t this a graceful, artistic complement to Clem’s stone porch?  Wish I knew who created it.


Here’s what the herb garden looks like in winter. (2011). Nice design, with good structural elements, don’t you think?


Mother Nature’s design: complex, artistic, captivating.


This visit, I saw dill, Russian sage, and the orange berries of a viburnum (possibly tea viburnum, V. setigerum?). The branches were spilling to the ground.


herbsclems_mmtnI arrived at this garden after leaving the dentist’s office, still thinking about work to be done, schedules to arrange. Funny how being outside, watching a spider scurrying into its funnel-shaped web, can put such mortal concerns to rest. Well… at least for a while.

Reminds me of a verse in a 1936 poem by Edward Thomas:

It is enough 

To smell, to crumble the dark earth,

While the robin sings over again

Sad songs of Autumn mirth.


Flashy Coneflower Cultivars: How Do Bees React?


When my dad was puzzled by some new gadget he’d seen, or the crazy ranting of a politician, or anything that seemed to have little purpose or value, he’d say, “I can’t do much with that.”  I laughed every time he said it, unaware of how much those memories and that one-sentence philosophy would stick with me in years to come.

The phrase “can’t do much with that” popped in my head recently when I went to a garden center to replenish my supply of houseplant potting soil. There was a big table of coneflowers outside and I drifted over to check out some cultivars that were screaming for attention. The entire display area was alive with insect activity. I had my camera with me, so figured this would be a good opportunity for close-ups.

The first “purple” coneflower I noticed was ‘Hot Papaya’ (above). This was a very lush, striking plant, but bees and butterflies were ignoring it.


The next plant I saw was ‘Raspberry Trifle’. No bees were around, but I did see a few beetles like this one on the outer edges of some petals.


A lot of bees were on this echinacea cultivar. (I forgot to jot down the name.) Although the flower petals are a neon-ish color of coral, the flower structure is very similar to the straight species of purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.

My very unscientific survey brings up the question: Do bees and other pollinators know what to do with the busy, complicated flowers of certain native coneflower cultivars? According to Doug Tallamy in his popular book Bringing Nature Home, flower shape and the amount of nectar stored in each flower is important because “each species of native bee evolved to forage in flowers with particular morphologies. Bumblebees, for example, have long ‘tongues’ that can reach nectar pools at the base of flowers with long corollas, while sweat bees have relatively short tongues.” When a bee’s expecting single flowers and finds doubles, will it still try to reach those nectar pools?

It’s not to say we should ignore the exploding numbers of native plant cultivars available or forego having these plants in our gardens. It’s just that, now, it seems more critical to explore all possibilities for the decline in pollinator populations, even though some of those reasons seem beyond our control. Just this week, I learned about more county-sponsored pesticide sprayings in neighborhoods not far from me. I’m also seeing more advertisements by landscape companies offering “mosquito eradication” services.  Are all these pesticides targeted to mosquitoes or are they wiping out other, more beneficial insect populations?

Sometimes I wonder what my dad would think of all this. He was an organic gardener (mostly vegetables) and didn’t worry much about what kind of flowers bees liked. He just knew the bees came, they pollinated plants, and the seasons passed, just as they had for centuries. He knew when things were within his control — and when they weren’t. Things seemed a lot simpler then, but the goal is the same: work with nature’s framework, do the best you can, then sit back and enjoy it all!

Blue Billow and the Bees


The graceful, waist-high Hydrangea serrata ‘Blue Billow’ is full of blooms now, despite its not-so-ideal location in the shade of tall hemlocks. I should move this little beauty, but I’m reluctant: Sometimes the deer forget it’s here (is that possible?) and I get to enjoy the blooms and bee activity  longer than if the plant had roots in a more sunny, less-isolated place. To see it now, I have to wiggle in behind the ‘Summer Snowflake’ viburnum and other foliage, but it’s always worth the risk of stepping on a snake or lizard or something to see the pollinators abuzzing.

This morning, the bees were having mid-air ballets with Blue Billow florets. Their hind legs were loaded with pollen. I swear the bees preferred the pink flowers. If that’s the case, why?

I love the lacecaps so much. Mopheads are mostly good for big, floppy arrangements, in my opinion. I’m sure most hydrangea aficionados would take me to task for saying that, but isn’t that what makes gardening fun — that we all like something different? My nightmare is that I will wake up one day and the only plants left on earth will be  ‘Stella de Oro’ daylilies, yellow arborvitaes, and leyland cypress, all surrounded with orange, rubber mulch. The nature lovers and gardeners I know won’t let that happen, but it’s still a ver..r..y scary thought!

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:

Ag Day and the Spiders

Hitching a Ride

Each fall, the University of Tennessee sponsors Ag Day, an entertaining and informative way to showcase agricultural research and programs throughout the state. Children, in particular, are drawn to the colorful exhibits and bug collections at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology booth. Sometimes the imposing giant spiders and cockroaches get to leave their cages and come out to play. I saw a lot of mixed reactions in the crowd when this tarantula got its turn.