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!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Tree Planting 101: The Reckless Approach

Nurtured Trees

Nurtured For a Long Time

Many professions have licensing requirements and uniform standards for quality and compliance. In Tennessee, there is no state certification or licensing process for someone in the landscape profession, as there is for a builder, electrician, auctioneer, or cosmetologist. A landscape company can submit a low bid, get a contract for a project, then execute it with the poorest of professional and ethical standards — all without penalty, it seems.

Everything from planting to pruning to pest control requires knowledge and judgement, yet both are often sacrificed for the quick-fix and a signature on a contract. This sub-quality work comes at a price — to consumers, the environment, and the quality of neighborhoods. I just shake my head when I see large, beautiful trees dying, simply because someone didn’t know (or care) if the most basic planting standards were met.

A few weeks ago, I was driving down a side street and saw these glaring (and jarring) examples of how NOT to plant a tree:

Plant 'Em High

Plant ‘Em High

Plant 'Em Low

Plant ‘Em Low


Plant ‘Em Crooked

And finally, we have the ultimate example of Oh. My. Goodness. How could you possibly do that many things to one tree?

A Good Tree Sacrificed

A Good Tree, Sacrificed

A lot of resources go into growing a tree from seed or a cutting: water, labor, fertilizer, and plain old worry, especially if you’re a nursery owner in charge of seeing your plants through the challenges of drought, freezing temperatures, wind, and insects. For a young, thriving tree to meet its demise through human carelessness is just plain wrong.

Earth Day. What’s Your Footprint?

Footprints: Next Generation

This morning I spent some time on Earth Day Network’s website, learning about their programs and using their interactive “footprint” calculator. The calculator is defined as a “resource accounting tool that measures how much biologically productive land and sea is used up by a given population or activity”. I entered information about my choices in food, lodging, and transportation and got a visual impression of how my lifestyle is impacting the ecological capacity of the earth. If you want to take the quiz, you’ll find the footprint calculator here, with a link to a FAQ page about why it’s important.

Not for Postcard Use


I was driving east on I-40, singing along to the radio, then … this. Erosion and soil degradation, loss of trees and habitat, ugliness — this view has it all.

Little Tree Under Siege

These two photos show that even the tiniest Canadian hemlock is vulnerable to attack by the non-native insect, wooly adelgid. This little tree is just over a foot tall. It’s already covered by the same nasty pest that destroyed the stately (and considerably larger) hemlock that thrived for many decades at my North Carolina homeplace. Every morning, I looked out through the limbs of that tree from the window of the bedroom my sister and I shared. I think about those days –and that hemlock– nearly every time I go home.

Life As a Turkey

Wild Turkeys: Headed for the Road

There were fifteen or so wild turkeys in my neighbor’s yard as I was driving out yesterday. When I stopped to take a picture, most of them ran across the road (bringing various”Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes to mind). It used to be rare to see turkeys around here — the flock has definitely multiplied.

Recently, I watched an engaging, beautifully-filmed special on PBS called “My Life As a Turkey”. It’s about Joe Hutto, a naturalist  in Florida, and his experience raising wild turkeys hatched from a basket of eggs left on his porch. For months, Hutto was mother to sixteen imprinted “children”, showing them the land and protecting them from predators. He marvelled at the birds’  innate intelligence, curiousity, and often playful way of interacting with nature — and with him.

The full version of “My Life As a Turkey” is here. Sit down, prop your feet up, and enjoy!

New USDA Plant Hardiness Map

Now, for the first time since 1990, gardeners have an updated, comprehensive climate zone guide for plant hardiness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released a new interactive map based on weather data gathered from 1976 to 2005. The map proves what gardeners have long suspected: there has been a warming trend in many parts of the country, affecting plant variety, range, and adaptability.

Since the average minimum temperature has gone up in many areas, spring comes sooner, fall lasts longer, and winters are often milder. Many parts of the country have gone up half  a zone, based on 10 degrees Farenheit for each latitudinal zone.  My zone, for example, had been 6b; now it’s 7a.

You can enter your zip code here at the new USDA map to find which zone you’re in, and to learn more about the USDA’s research process.