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.

Hamlin Ceramics: Vibrant Art, Inspired by Gardens

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In August of each year, the New Morning Gallery in Asheville sponsors a popular art and craft show on the grounds of the Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village. The show is known for its high quality crafts representing artists throughout the U.S.

This year, I had time for a quick tour of booths on Sunday afternoon, just before the show ended. One display stopped me short: the colorful, textured vessels of ceramics artist Mike Hamlin. Some pieces were cratered, very organic-looking, as  shown above.

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Others were more elegant, with smooth finishes and a more intense spectrum of colors.

The creator of this varied work is Mike Hamlin of Hamlin Ceramics. He is influenced by gardening (“I combine my passion for gardening with my passion for ceramics and design forms…”), as well as by Scandanavian and mid-century design and other influences.

 

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Mike’s creations are almost surreal, especially contrasted against a white background. These gorgeous colors and textures made me daydream: I would redecorate my house, using hues of blue and green, with several of these vessels as focal points. I would fill them with wispy native flowers or, in winter, arching sprays of dry grasses. But since redecorating is out, I’m content with one of Mike’s smaller pieces, a perfect complement to my rotating collection of seedpods, tiny shells, dried petals, and other objects.

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I had never met Mike before the craft show, but I enjoyed talking to him about his work and his gardens. You can reach him at  http://www.hamlin-smith.com.

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.

Frog Footprints (Or Not)

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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.

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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.

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!

Signs of Summer: The Farmers’ Market

Farmers Market near UNC-Asheville

Farmers Market near UNC-Asheville

A sweet family. A dog. Colorful Plants. Homegrown (and homemade) food. A beautiful day. What more could you want?

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.

Sweetpea Sunday

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This meadow at the Carolina home place is chaotic, yet beautiful in its own way. Last week, the dewy blossoms of sweet peas and Queen Anne’s lace engaged me and several groups of early morning walkers.

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Unlike other fields on the property, this one gets mowed sporadically. Weedy thugs have taken over. I see an occasional butterfly weed or milkweed (unfortunate terminology since these are desirable natives and wonderful for pollinators). They struggle for a toehold and find it hard to compete with the more aggressive plants. My hope is that, someday, the field can be mowed regularly to keep weeds from going to seed. Then we can look at encouraging a transition to more native plants.

It’s hard to argue against sweet peas, though. They have such appealing blooms — and a nice name to boot!

Storm Center and the Tulip Poplar

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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.

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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.