Royal Star Magnolia Makes Its Pre-frost Show

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‘Royal Star’ is one of my favorite small magnolias. Its smooth, gray branches are laden with complex, sensuous blossoms and fuzzy-gray buds. The rounded shape adapts well to both small and expansive landscapes.

I planted this specimen at the Asheville homeplace in the early ’90’s, then my son and I thinned out its shrubby branches a decade later. Without any other attention, it has grown into a beautifully-shaped little tree about 15′ tall.

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‘Royal Star’ (Magnolia stellata) is an early-bloomer, an especially challenging trait this winter. Soon after I took these photos, every blossom was tinged with brown — definitely forlorn-looking compared to a few days before. There was no way to withstand the wildly-fluctuating temperatures that, for days, had risen to the ’80s, then dived to below freezing.

There are other good deciduous magnolias, ones with later bloom cycles, but my family and I have grown fond of this one. Every season, I look out from the kitchen window and see its dense, familiar branches. Gracefully, they occupy the space between the former garden and an old shed that shelters a family of groundhogs.

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.

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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

Antics Near the Buckeye

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Aesculus parviflora, the imposing bottlebrush buckeye at the bottom of the hill, has been magnificent this year. Every summer, this plant outdoes itself, making a strong statement in the garden and attracting all kinds of insects that feed on the flowers’ nectar. Dense branches provide a place for birds to find shelter and rest. Squirrels love to hide the buckeyes and knock the extras to the ground, which makes the chipmunks happy. If the humans are vigilant, they get a few of the inedible nuts, as well. Hard to believe, but this sprawling, flowering beauty is not a mass planting. It started here as a lone, somewhat scraggly, 4′ specimen. Over the past 7-8 years, it has spread by low, lateral branches that have rooted deeply into the fertile woodland soil. When the buckeye was in full bloom a few weeks ago, I put a chair beside it to show size perspective for a photo.

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The next morning, I looked out from the deck and the chair was missing. I thought maybe my husband had moved it to mow the small patch of adjacent lawn, but no, it turned up under the full moon maple, on its side, right in the middle of a bed of hardy begonia. Though lots of different critters move through our property — many of them in the evening hours — it would have taken a pretty large animal to move a metal chair that far. Since neighborhood deer bed down under the row of hemlocks behind the buckeye, I’m thinking they were probably responsible.  Don’t know, but it must have been a wild night in the garden!

Change Ahead: Wampoldtopia Home and Garden

wambold9 On a garden bloggers tour of Asheville a few years ago, I spent a sensory-rich morning at the home of two artists, Damaris Pierce and Ricki Pierce. Somehow, I never got around to writing much about this intriguing place, named Wampoldtopia after the street that runs by the property. Then, this week-end, I read a recent article about Damaris and Ricki’s plans to give up the house and its lovingly-crafted gardens.  I figured it was time to look back at my photos and re-visit Wampoldtopia. When Ricki came to build a pond at the house in 2002 or so, Damaris lived there alone. It wasn’t long before Ricki moved in. The couple married and undertook one outdoor project after another, turning their hillside site into a fantasy of whimsical art, stonework, gardens, and pathways. wambold1 One look at the hillside and you can see why neighbors and passers-by have been curious about the fairyland web of artwork and plants. For the past few years, the couple has opened the gardens for special tours and visits by community groups. Still, they’ve tried to retain some privacy — not always easy with such enticing visions within the boundaries of fences and walls. wampold2 Damaris’s art and Rick’s stonework blend seamlessly throughout the outdoor space. With every step, there’s a treasure to see — each tangible evidence of a whole lot of talent and just plain hard work. wampold7 For years, Rick brought home some of his leftovers from stonework commissions. Always another project…. wambold8 Most of the bricks in this pathway were salvaged from road demolition projects, then placed, one by one, to create textural interest and access alongside the house. wampold10 Some people have an angel sculpture and some people have one enfolded by a lovely stone surround. wampold3 There was a bench near this straight little shallow stream, or rill, as the English might say. Despite quite a few gardeners milling about the hillside, you could still hear the soft trickling of water and the chatter of birds looking down at all the crazy humans ooh-ing and ah-ing over every little botanical/creative treasure! wampold5 Would you think this is a fairy house or a full-size shed? Actually, it’s about the size of a dog house. Very charming and unexpected as you walk along one of the paths criss-crossing the hillside. wampold9 The owners found this innovative way to disguise a chain link fence on the back of their property. The arches are made of cement and stucco, I believe, and the petals of mesh with some type of material on the surface. To me, it’s always sad to leave a garden, especially one that represents as much planning, labor, creativity and love as this one. Will the new owners take care of the garden? Will they keep things the way they are, maybe overlaying their own touches onto the space, or will they change much of it? Either way,  I wish Demarius and Ricki the best as they explore new and separate paths. I also thank them for that fine spring morning I spent at Wampoldtopia.

Winter Walk: Charleston’s Leafy Appeal

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Outstanding architecture, restaurants, gardens, and a rich cultural history — Charleston offers it all in abundance. On the rare occasions we get to visit there, we head downtown, park the car, and walk the Battery and side streets until feet and backs say “no more”.

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Even on a cold, winter day, Charleston is a feast for the senses. Always tuned into plants and gardens, I gravitate toward the private courtyard spaces, peeking through delicately-filigreed gates and fences wherever I can.

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I’m fascinated by the toughness of street trees, crammed within sidewalks into tiny rectangles of soil. Crape myrtles are prevalent here, but there are plenty of live oaks, as well. They’ve all survived decades of car emissions, extremes in weather, and foot traffic across their roots.

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It’s hard to imagine a tree with more site adaptability than these tree-form crape myrtles. Many of the ones downtown appear to be ‘Natchez’, an excellent cross of two species that was developed by the U.S. Arboretum. ‘Natchez’ is more mildew-resistant and cold hardy than most older, shrub-form varieties. Fortunately, those in charge of downtown pruning have rejected the increasingly-common practice of topping crape myrtles and turning them into summer-blooming lollipops.

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Of course, there’s always an exception.

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The cemeteries of Charleston are rich in plant variety and texture. Camellias (C. sasanqua, most likely) were in bloom a few weeks ago, but may now have succumbed to the ice and record low temperatures of the past few days.  It felt a little intrusive to walk the paths threading between weather-worn tombstones of people who died so many years — even centuries — ago.

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Palmettos (Sabal palmetto) are an iconic tree in Charleston and the state tree of South Carolina.The fronds are used by local crafters to make baskets and “rose” bouquets. At this park beside the Cooper River, palmettos form a backdrop to a sign that amuses tourists, advising them there is no lifeguard stationed at the pineapple-topped fountain.

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We saw plenty of evergreen plants, including creeping fig vine (Ficupumila) and Podocarpus, a conifer called yew pine. Here, these plants nearly obscure walls surrounding this secluded entryway and garden.

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Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) is an evergreen shrub that grows in many gardens here. It’s not hardy in my area, so I took time to enjoy the gorgeous white flowers, glowing in front of a richly-patterned, textured wall.

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Live oaks (Quercus virginiana) are a cherished part of the history and charm of Charleston. They, too, seem to thrive in narrow strips of soil along the street. Such a regal,beautiful tree.

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The massive, splendid specimens of southern magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora, look happy and completely at home in the Charleston landscape.

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One courtyard had the native eastern dogwood, Cornus florida . It’s very common in southern Appalachia — not so much in the deep south.

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Many gardens visible from side streets had dwarf boxwood hedges — Buxus x ‘ Suffruticosa’, I would imagine. These boxwoods work well in small gardens where the constraints of straight-lined driveways, iron fences, and houses call for more geometric, formal design. The appearance of perennials and flowering shrubs would enhance these boxwoods come springtime. Yes…. springtime… I think I must (have to) go back and see the transformation!

Snowed In With Gardenopoly

Pass Grow and Collect $200

For the Mogul Gardener

Yesterday I heard a poem on the radio, “Monopoly 1955” by Barbara Crooker. It got me thinking about a game I  bought for my mother in May of last year.

I’d spent the morning volunteering at the Botanical Garden of Asheville and noticed a colorful box displayed on a top shelf in the gift shop. GARDEN-OPOLY, the box said in floral and leafy letters. Two of Mom’s favorite things — gardening and playing Monopoly. How could I lose for a Mother’s Day gift?

Greenhouses Instead of Hotels

Pass Grow and Collect $200

Instead of hotels and houses, the game has little greenhouses and clay pots to place on real estate acquisitions. Just like Monopoly, the more “development” you’ve done, the more you can charge anyone who lands on your properties.

Greenhouses are worth more than pots. Mom put up greenhouses on Regal Rose Way and Orchid Estates. I was hoping to buy Hydrangea Haven but, instead, ended up with two pots on Poison Ivy Way and one or two on Dandelion Drive. (How does this game know my garden?)

As the game progressed, both of us acquired more properties. I learned that my 88-year old mother is very competitive when it comes to the nuances of building an empire with a board game. She bought everything she could and I kept having to Go To Weeding (Jail). I also seemed to land on Aphid Infestation a lot, further depleting my supply of money. Mom kept a poker face throughout, but I could tell she was scheming in her mind the whole time.

It took us over two hours to finally finish and we were pretty well wiped out at the end. Much as we liked the game, we decided the short version was our choice for the future. But then, we weren’t snowbound, or we might have looked at things differently.

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’.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

 

Fall Is In the Air

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Uplifted

The signs are here: changes in light patterns and intensity, dry leaves littering the paths, the waning sounds of frogs and insects. Black-eyed susans reach for the sky and I reach for the last remaining moments of a gentle, nature-filled summer.

Wispy Blue, Newly-Valued: American Bellflower

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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?

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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!