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.

Frog Footprints (Or Not)


A spot by any other name …

Galls and other leaf oddities have intrigued me lately. On an early evening walk with my mother a few weeks ago, I picked a bright-colored leaf from the lower limb of a nearby oak tree. I wondered out loud about the light green spots on the surface.  My brother’s sweet and observant four-year-old grandson, who had just presented me with some tiny yellow, roadside flowers, said, “I’m pretty sure it’s frog footprints.”

Those of us in the grown-up world might think those spots are actually a kind of leaf blister called Taphrina caerulescens. But, for now, we’ll keep that information to ourselves.

For a four-year-old, there’s plenty of time to learn about botany and plant diseases and factual reasons for green spots. Frogs and their footprints are the reality for now.

Redbuds: Tame and Free on I-40

Last week-end, looking for an early morning biscuit fix, I took the Biltmore Village exit on my way from east Asheville to Knoxville. To my left, I saw a grouping of what seemed a shorter, more stocky cultivar of the native Canadian redbud, Cercis canadensis.

Roadside grouping of redbud

Roadside grouping of redbud

The effect was striking in the morning light. But this mass planting didn’t evoke the same emotional response as the native redbuds that appear on hillsides this time of year.


Canadian redbuds along I-40, WNC and East Tennessee

Back on the interstate, I saw miles and miles of the graceful branches and downy, lavender-pink flowers of species Canadian redbud, randomly interspersed among native pines and hardwoods. It was an uplifting sight. I just wish the flowers weren’t quite so fleeting.

Easter, Spring, childhood memories: these wispy redbuds evoke them all.

Wordless Wednesday: Unfurling

Ferns unfurling - BGA

Transitions: Botanical Gardens Asheville

Storm Center and the Tulip Poplar


What tree?

When your house sits under a canopy of decades-old, 50′-100′ shade trees, you appreciate the benefits. You feel the drop in temperature when you leave the asphalt road and turn into the driveway. You note the ongoing parade of birds, squirrels, and insects scurrying up and down the furrowed trunks. It’s nature up close and always entertaining.

But there are downsides. It’s dark in the house. It’s hard to keep leaves and debris off the roof. The squirrels leap from tree to tree, then chew on cedar eaves when they get bored with running.


Outside my window

And then there’s Storm Center, dispensing its warnings with increasing frequency and intensity. Approaching winds! Heavy rain! Take cover! Worry, worry.

Just this week, Storm Center scrolled its warnings across the television screen. I was busy sorting books — keep and give away –and didn’t notice. Besides, there was no wind, and the rain was steady and soft.

Then, things started to change. The trunk of the tulip magnolia/poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), growing six feet from the window, began moving from side to side. It gathered momentum, swaying in a widening circle. Alarmingly, the angle of the trunk changed from 90 degrees to nearly 70 degrees, leaning toward the house. I froze, expecting the worst. Then, as fast as the wind started, it stopped, and the tree righted itself.

The next day, news stations reported our area had seen the worst instance of circling heavy winds, damage, and uprooted tree in forty years. If our tree (one of a dozen close by) had gone down in this storm, so would’ve half our house.

In the ’70s, the homebuilders decided to keep most of the trees here, rather than cut them down to make their job easier. For that I’m grateful. But since the trees had previously grown in dense woods, reaching for the sun, most of them now have no branches on the lower 50 or so feet. The weight is all concentrated at the top of the trunk– okay for the forest, but not for inhabitants of the house.

Storm Center says there will be another Event today. I’m hoping for the best, staying away from the window until the tree specialist gets here to allay (or confirm) my fears.

Craving Color


It’s been a long winter.

When you live in the woods, you get used to subtlety. You learn to appreciate delicate shades of blue, and the muted yellows and pinks of wildflowers. You’re amazed at the nuances of white in blooms of trillium and fothergilla and sweetbay magnolia. You love the giant oak trees and the dark, humusy soil, and the way the light filters through the canopy at different times of the day.

But wait!  You’re forgetting about the vivid colors of red buckeye and native columbine, and the bright blue of the ajuga, and the fuschia camellias, not to mention the wonderfully-fragrant, lemon-colored witchhazels. And that’s just Spring. What were you thinking?

Color in a shade garden

Still, there are February days when the garden looks woefully brown. You fantasize about farmer’s markets, cut flower farms, and daylily nurseries — all that bright-hued goodness a gardener takes for granted in warmer months. It would be hard to incorporate all those colors in a garden.You know that. But, today, you’re dreaming…. just waiting for Spring.

Fall Impressions: Trees In My Tennessee Garden


Nature’s paintbrush only. No color enhancements here or below.

Maybe it’s just me, but the trees seemed different this fall — the colors more vibrant and, at the same time, impressionistic and softly layered. Before the rains came and the leaves started swirling down, I saw hues and combinations I hadn’t noticed before.


I wouldn’t purposely pair shades of peach and red, but that’s how things ended up as leaves transitioned this month.The leaves in the foreground belong to a well-loved Japanese maple, a very dominant tree in our backyard. Behind the maple is a Stewartia koreana, which has been spectacular all year. I wish I’d planted it a little closer to the house, but it’s nice to view it from a distance, through various angles in the yard and from the windows indoors. There’s a Ginkgo biloba across from the stewartia, but it’s hard to distinguish among the other trees. It was topped several years ago when a very large tree (oak, if I recall) fell onto it from the neighbor’s property across the road.


The maple is one of my most treasured trees. I got it as a five-or-six foot specimen from a sweet man who grew unusual trees on his family farm. The tree has moved with me two times and I’m thinking *big* digging equipment (just dreaming!) if I ever move again. Somewhere, way back in the plant files, is the name of this tree. I keep thinking I’ll try to find it, and someday I will.


In this photo, the maple leaves on the west- facing side were still burgundy. Gradually, they took on the crimson hue of the ones in back . The purple/green leaves to the left are ‘Summer Snowflake’, an upright doublefile viburnum. In the distance: Acer saccharum, sugar maple, which competes with the many tulip poplars throughout the backyard.


A beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) lights up the hillside. Thankfully, I get to look at this magnificent tree every time I pull into the driveway.


Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, fullmoon maple, is the vividly-colored little tree to the right in this photo. In the middle (still green): Parrotia persica. The grayish sticks, bottom left, belong to a huge bottlebrush buckeye. Sadly missing from this year’s fall line-up is the ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud that was planted on the hill to the right of the parrotia. I believe the voles finally decimated its roots this summer. The redbud leaves a blank space that will need to be filled sometime in early winter.


An earlier view of the fullmoon maple shows the leaves looking stressed. There was some dieback on the top of the tree this summer, which is a concern. Voles have been very active this year and the root structure is becoming unstable. I know, because the voles almost got my Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) this year. It was a close call. We had to dig up the pine and put it in a huge pot until we determine a new (less vole prone) location for it.


Here’s another odd color combination — kind of interesting, I think. In the foreground, left, is the purple foliage of ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod, followed by the billowy yellow Amsonia hubrichtii, a dark green falsecypress, a blue spruce and finally the coppery-orange leaves of American beech in the distance.

Now, the color is almost gone. It’s time to rake … and rake some more, remembering that the oaks and the beeches will hold out for a long, long time.

Light on Leaves. Carolina.


This time of year, I love to walk on the land that has been in my family for decades. I take in the colors, the sight of old grapevines, the smell of damp leaves … the faraway smoke.

Today’s walk was no different, except when the sun changed, making me stop short on the path. I saw a beautiful, very-focused band of light on the native trees at the edge of the pasture. A gorgeous, sight — and very brief. The sourwood (far right) was outside the glow, but held its own amidst the hickories, oaks, white pines, and maples.

Why am I such a sucker when it comes to sights like this? Is it the light … the color … the affinity with the land ? Yes, all of those, and the assurance that nature remains, through all the craziness.

Sure wish you could have walked with me!


(*Another post about sourwoods & how they seem to thrive in the NC mountains is here) .

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!

Sun Scorch On Viburnum Leaves

Sun-scorch on Viburnum nudum leaf

Viburnum nudum – leaf scorch

Sunburn, scorching, cellular damage. This all happened to a beautiful native plant, Viburnum nudum (Smooth Witherod) that I moved from a shady spot in the backyard to a sunny place by the front door. I had bought a huge, new pottery urn and was trying out different planting ideas for effect. I put the viburnum inside the new pot and decided to leave it a few days to see if I liked it. It rained for a while. I forgot about the urn. Then the sun came out.

Predictably, it was a big jolt to the viburnum’s system to be out in the sun all day. For months before, it had nestled comfortably under the trees, in its original nursery container, amidst a stash of plants I wrote about here. Then, abruptly,  it was in sun and heat, both intensified by the temperature inside the urn.

So, no, the leaf-scorching wasn’t caused by over-fertilization or disease or over/under-watering. It was caused by the timing and inattention of the gardener (me).  One of those uh-oh moments that happen when you’re paying attention to something else.

Fortunately, the viburnum is starting to recover nicely. It will not suffer permanent damage (I hope). It will remain in the sun, with plenty of water in the final weeks of summer.

Next year, I’ll be more diligent, but don’t you think the sun’s rays are getting more intense and harsh every year? It may require a whole new approach to plant care and garden design.