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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

Wordless Wednesday: Unfurling

Ferns unfurling - BGA

Transitions: Botanical Gardens Asheville

Flashy Coneflower Cultivars: How Do Bees React?

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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.

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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.

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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!

Wispy Blue, Newly-Valued: American Bellflower

Campanulastrum americana - Tall bellflower

Campanulastrum americana – American or Tall bellflower

Why am I just now appreciating this beauty, growing on the bank between ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod and several native asters? Is it because this year’s stand is thicker — the flowers bluer — than last year?

Campanulastrum americana -delicate blue

Campanulastrum americana -delicate blue flowers

My American (or Tall) bellflower has been growing in the same spot for several years, but the plant was so straggly-looking, I glanced right over it, thinking it was a weed. Why I didn’t pull it up, I don’t know, although I generally  give suspected weeds the benefit of the doubt, just in case I take out a treasure and regret it later. This means some plants get a free pass longer than they should.

I’m so glad Campanulastrum americana got to stay, and will remain, for as long as it’s happy and wants to grow here. I love the hue and composition of its flowers, the candelabra structure of the plant, and the way the blooms contrast with the pastels of nearby spiderwort and summer phlox.

There’s a lesson here: to pay attention, investigate, and not make assumptions about things — garden or otherwise. Mother Nature — teacher –comes through, once again!

BGA: Microcosm of Southern Appalachia

Sunday was one of those unrushed, perfect days that began in a setting dear to my heart. It was the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, where garden manager and naturalist Jay Kranyik led a group of outdoorsy-types eager to learn about natural plant communites and ways to model aspects of them in our own gardens and landscapes.

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Carex grayii – Gray’s Sedge

As Jay transitioned our group from sunny, dry (xeric) areas of the garden to more shady, moist (mesic) ones, he pointed out characteristics of each site and discussed design concepts used over time to ensure aesthetic and ecological compatibility in the Garden. When we reached the bog area, he got right out in the middle of it, reminding me of the title of Anne Raver’s book Deep in the Green. He told us about the evolution of this wetland habitat and the natural processes of a bog area. One of his favorite plants — quickly appreciated by our group — is Gray’s sedge, Carex grayii (shown above).

Jay Kranyik - Immersed in his work

Jay Kranyik – Immersed in his work

We left the bog area and crossed a small bridge that leads to the open grassy area where BGA’s spring and fall plant sales are held. We passed an outcrop of large boulders and rock garden specimens, but I got so distracted by the mountain dwarf dandelion that I forgot to get a photo.

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We proceeded down the trail beside Reed Creek and looked at sassafras, American climbing fern, and a variety of other native plants until we reached the sycamore meadow. Here we saw key examples of edge areas, or places where two habitats — usually dry and moist — meet. Outstanding specimens of queen-of-the-prairie, Filipendula rubra, were in bloom and covered with insect pollinators.

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Shortleaf pine – Pinus echinata

We were intrigued by the short-leaf pine, Pinus echinata, that was leaning over the creek. Its striking, plate-like bark stood out among the surrounding textures and shades of green.

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Jay led the group toward the cabin, past an unusual cove-type planting. Some of us were lagging behind, reluctant to leave intriguing plant groupings or microscopic habitats. I’ve been visiting this patch of land since my days as a student at nearby UNC-Asheville. Now, I’m a volunteer at the garden, but still find infinite possibilities for exploration and wonder. With over 600 native plant species and a nearby water source, there is an abundance of bees, butterflies and other insects, not to mention birds, snakes, and larger critters. The garden changes on an hourly basis, it seems.

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We spent a good bit of time near the entrance of the garden, looking at plants that border the parking lot and the nearby street. We heard the rationale and strategies for planting this sunny, normally-dry area. Trees such as sourwood, black gum, and hemlock help buffer traffic noise and visibility and create year-round beauty, plus food and cover for birds.

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Eryngium yuccifolium – rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master is a showy complement to the little bluestem grass, butterfly milkweed, monarda, and other drought-tolerant plants that edge the gravel parking lot.

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Liatris aspera – Rough Blazing Star

I was quite taken with this blazing star, Liatris aspera. It’s one of those plants that calls one to linger, wondering how such complexity and beauty exist on one plant. No showy blooms yet, no blazing color — just plant perfection.

quiltgdn_mmtnbgalight_mmtnSome people come to BGA looking for lots of blooms and formal beds like the quilt garden at Bilmore Estate. One visitor, surprised by the comparatively wild plantings at the Botanical Garden, announced that the place looked much like what he might see on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Jay replied “Thank you”, for that’s exactly what he and the BGA staff and volunteers are striving for.

BGA is a patchwork of light and shadows, teeming with plant diversity and ever-changing biological processes. It’s a place to return to — again and again — to recharge and get inspiration for your own garden. Our Sunday group would surely agree: Come visit BGA and re-discover Southern Appalachia!

 

 

Pollinators: Learn More

Help protect pollinators! They add greatly to the diversity of our gardens and are critical to the nation’s food supply and natural ecosystems.

For more information about the  importance of pollinators and ways to help their survival, visit http://www.pollinator.org.

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Eastern Box Turtle by the House

Terrapene carolina

Terrapene carolina

I stepped out on the deck last evening and was startled to see this female box turtle sitting on a board beside the big oak tree. When I went back in the house she climbed up the vertical stones by the deck and stayed in the groundcover on the bank for a long time. I took her some grapes, shredded carrots, and lettuce; this morning it was all gone. She still hasn’t moved very far, so I hope everything is okay.  There are no signs of trauma from lawn equipment or cars and no obvious signs of illness or disease.

I’m not sure why a box turtle was on the deck, but it’s becoming much more rare to see a box turtle in the wild. Loss of habitat, pesticides and other trauma are causing them not to mate or live as long. I learned from a herpetology website by Davidson College that box turtles have a strong homing instinct. If they’re taken into captivity and later released, they try to get back to the place of their birth. On their journey home, they often encounter perils such as car traffic or predators.

Tonight, I took out some tomato (which box turtles are supposed to like) and a few other things in case she was hungry. We’ll see what happens next. Maybe an egg? Fingers crossed it’s something good like that.

Birds and Fun and Flora: Ijams Nature Center

With all its wildlife and plant abundance, my own yard feels like a nature sanctuary. It’s always changing, and I just walk outside to get there. But on lush, cool days in May, I’m ready to meet friends and family to experience the outdoors in a different setting. Last week, it was Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg that enticed me; this week,  Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville.

Ijams has changed considerably since  1910, when Harry and Alice Ijams purchased the Center’s original twenty acres for their home place. The couple set out to create a haven for birds and plants, and they just kept on creating and expanding. In the 1960s, the land became a public nature park. Now owned by the City of Knoxville, Ijams is a non-profit park overseen by staff and a board of directors for the purpose of conservation and public education. Over the years, the Center has expanded to 300 acres, including ten miles of walking trails.

Every creature plays a role

Every creature plays a role

One of the first teaching opportunities at Ijams appears on a sign leading to the visitors’ center. The display is about turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and shows that nature is not just about pretty butterflies and songbirds. The cycle of life and death is complex, with each plant and animal playing a part of the process.

Skink sunning outside Ijams Education Center

Skink in the sun

A five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, sits on top of a carved duck close to the roofline of the visitors’ center.

Nature vignette

Nature vignette

You’ll see a bit of this and that at the nature exhibits inside Ijams. Glad I didn’t see a snake this big outside, although I appreciate its purpose in the scheme of things. The turtle and fish, all slow-motion in the water, were definitely alive.

Ijams gift shop

Ijams gift shop

The gift shop has nature-themed gifts and regional crafts for sale. The shop is a source of revenue for Ijams, plus a dispenser of snacks and souvenirs for little visitors. Okay … for big ones too.

Mourning dove on the nest

Mourning dove on the nest

A mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, kept a sharp eye on visitors below. I wish I’d gotten a sharper photo of this appealing little bird.

We had a private visit with a red screech owl just below the dove’s nest. I’m saving that (longer) story for another day.

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Behind the education building, we saw this very fine specimen of native fringetree, also called old man’s beard. I love this tree, Chionanthus virginicus.

Native honeysuckle

Trumpet honeysuckle

Oh, and how could you not swoon when you see the native Lonicera sempervirens, or trumpet honeysuckle? All kinds of pollinators are attracted to this vine. It’s a little hard to find at nurseries, but don’t give up. There is a yellow version of it — nothing like the invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that grows throughout the southeast and beyond.

Mead's quarry

Mead’s quarry

This lake (ducks or geese in the distant background) used to be a quarry where marble was extracted for buildings and monuments. We climbed to the top of the steep, stone cliffs, passing a small country graveyard along the way.

Old graveyard

Old graveyard

I’m always moved by graveyards, especially small, remote ones like this that are on the verge of reverting to wild.

Lichen just off the trail

Lichen just off the trail

One of my goals for this year is to learn more about lichens. We saw these just after a pair of indigo buntings landed in a nearby tree. Such beautiful birds. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted both the photos I took of the buntings before they flew away.

Invasive wisteria

Invasive wisteria

Since there are so many positive examples of nature conservation at Ijams, I’m a bit reluctant to mention how disturbing it was to see so many invasive plants growing rampantly  on the property, especially near the quarry. At first I thought this was kudzu, but it was the Japanese import Wisteria floribundans (abundant flora, for sure).

On my own 3/4ths acre lot, we struggle with English ivy and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegia) so I understand the challenge of invasives. Recent rains have only added to the problem. But the level of wisteria, multiflora rose, poison ivy and other invasives at Ijams seems a call for remediation.  Otherwise, the entire property and surrounding countryside will be compromised.

A child who cares

A child who cares

To end on an upbeat note, I’m including a drawing and poem that was displayed near the administrative offices at Ijams. It’s by a third-grader named Ethan.

My brother’s name is Nick

Pollution makes him sick

He doesn’t like pollution

So I came up with a solution.

 

Pollution is everywhere

It scares the bunnies and hares

Trucks and cars pollute the air

Ride your bicycle because you care.

 

Don’t throw trash in the street

Pick it up and be real neat

Don’t dump chemicals in the river

Some day it might harm your liver.

 

So, go, Ethan, third-grade budding naturalist. And go Ijams, until my return another day.

 

Wordless Wednesday: A Chilly Day at the Botanical Garden

Asheville Botanical Garden

Last hours: native plant sale at the Asheville Botanical Garden

Surrounded by green. Asheville Botanical Garden

Blue tents in a lush, verdant setting

Headed for a different wooded garden

 

Trails, Trains, and Crawdads

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After a mentally-draining session with blogs and websites, my son and I found reprieve in a late-winter walk along Third Creek greenway in Knoxville. We parked at the Sutherland Avenue entrance and walked down a straight stretch of paving with grass clearings on either side. Groups of fat robins converged at the edge of a thicket of trees and undergrowth. There is good habitat for birds here: cover, water, and (presumably) plenty of food.

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More evidence of birds, in this case woodpeckers. This tree has been foraged repeatedly for grubs and insects.

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We saw bird silhouettes in distant trees, and a grouping of what appeared to be young, native beech trees with their buttery-brown winter foliage.

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The creek meanders alongside the path. The view was pretty from the first vantage point when the sun was out. Unfortunately, the creek had just flooded and there was a good bit of trash and debris on the banks in some areas. The grasses and other plants (too early in the season to know what they were) had been flattened by the rising water.

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The course of the stream was changed to a curving one by a process called stream re-meandering. According to this sign, the stream was dredged and straightened several decades ago because of erosion, sediment, and other problems associated with nearby development.  Some people who grew up in this area say the stream was always straight. I don’t know. Unfortunately, there are still issues with the creek, as this sign will attest:

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We saw a lot of bamboo, privet, and other invasive plants along this section of the greenway. It’s hard to keep invasives under control in areas such as utility right-of-ways, greenways, shoulders of highways, and other disturbed areas. At my own house, the creeks have eroded, and privet has seeded itself — with the help of birds — along the steep banks.

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3rdcreek_crayfish

A happy surprise — which brought back many childhood memories – was the discovery of crawfish holes in the moist areas near the beginning of the trail. According to the sign we saw later, the holes were made by Appalachian brook crayfish (also called crawfish and crawdads). I think these were the very ones that kept making tunnels in the dam of my dad’s pond in North Carolina. He spent many an hour plugging up crawfish holes.

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The trail leads to an area of thick vegetation near a railroad viaduct. The trestle is supported by thick columns, and the creek flows under some of them near the point where the greenway trail splits.

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On the tracks above the greenway, a train was carrying a load of fresh lumber. The late afternoon light was reflected on the concrete below the tracks. I was so absorbed in the sound of the sparkling creek, cascading over the rocks near the viaduct, that I forgot to get pictures of people running, riding bikes, and walking.

This might have been my favorite part of the trail. I love trains — the mystery and romance of them and the evocative sound of their horns from a distance. With the train, added to the winter sunshine and rushing creek, it was one of the best-ever escapes from a computer.