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!

Mazus Takes Over the Yard, Fooling the Rabbits

azaleaandmazus_mmtn The backyard is lush and cool now in advance of the wilting heat that’s sure to come. Everything looks fresh: colors, the changing patterns of light, the tender seedlings that push up through the soil every hour (or so it seems).

I wish I could send along the delicate fragrance from hundreds of pinkish-lavender azalea blooms at their peak now. You would swoon if you smelled them. The azaleas were maybe half this size when we moved here. Over the years, they’ve merged into one glorius swath that is actually more pastel than this straight-out-of-the-camera color indicates.

The big white patch in the lawn is Mazus reptans ‘Alba’, which takes more sun than purple mazus. This semi-evergreen perennial spreads rapidly in moist soil and can sometimes be a nuisance, but I like the way it contrasts with the bright green grass in spring. Maybe an entire lawn of mazus? Would that be so bad?

Bait and switch in the backyard

Bait and switch in the backyard

Rabbits seem confused by the mazus blooms. Every morning, at least one eastern cottontail comes and stands in the patch, smells a white flower, then pauses and looks puzzled — at least that’s the way it looks to me. After that, it smells more white flowers, then noses around to find some grass or something else to nibble on before hopping off. I wonder if it thinks it sees clover, then discovers it’s really mazus. It certainly looks like clover from a distance.

I saw a little pile of white downy fur in the grass last week. I wondered if it was the remnants of a rabbit that had let its guard down, trying to figure out why the clover wasn’t really clover at all.

On Turkeys (and Blogging)

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Wild turkeys on a late, Carolina morning

Mom looked out the window last week and saw a flock of wild turkeys picking at the dormant grass in the front yard. The birds were oblivious to the humans standing behind the glass just a few feet away. By the time we’d stopped fiddling with cameras and technical mishaps (dead batteries,etc.), the flock had proceeded to the end of the driveway, just beyond the rough-scaled ‘Heritage’ river birch on their left.

The birds headed across the road to the field (it becomes full of Queen Anne’s lace and sweet peas in summer), then veered toward a dilapidated old barn with a metal roof that threatens to fly off into the sky every time the wind blows hard. As a child, I helped the neighbor boys set up a general store in that little barn. We had old glass bottles, clunky tin cans, and small boxes with lettering muted by dampness from the building’s dirt floor.  I always wanted to be the shopkeeper. The boys bought some of my make-believe groceries and goods to humor me.

*       *       *       *       *

I’ve been a bit of a turkey with my blogging recently — wandering, picking at things, keeping my head low to the ground. Blogging requires commitment and time, and the ante gets upped pretty often, I think. An example is how many photos to provide for a posting. When I write about gardening, I feel compelled to include a lot of images, following the trend.  But it takes a lot of time to sort, re-size, and prepare photos for the web, then write a story, and do the behind-the-scenes work that makes the blog come together technically. Then, every few weeks a new app or social media platform surfaces, compelling bloggers to join in order to be relevant, or searchable, or whatever. So far, I’ve resisted, though I admire those who use those resources well.

For now, I need to be relevant to the social circle that’s in the flesh, needs my help, and doesn’t care if I’m search-engine optimized. In other words, blogging needs to take a back seat to parental and other responsibilities in the coming months.

When Meander Mountain first started, my goal was to have a very simple blog. For each posting, I wanted to show one or two photos that were nature-or-garden-related or that illustrated something  compelling or offbeat about traveling or life in Southern Appalachia (mostly east Tennessee and western North Carolina).  I want to re-commit to that approach, and also post more frequently — just without too many shoulds in my brain.

Too, I want to reach out more, to readers/other bloggers, who have made the past three M. Mountain years so enjoyable and worthwhile. For you, and for those who have made it to the end of this epistle, I am grateful. I look forward to staying in touch!

Cheers — to blogging and to wild turkeys,

DJ

February Morning. My Version of Groundhog Day.

First appearance. My version of Groundhog Day.

Emerging from the crevices. Spring coming soon?

Safe Travels!

Crossing the parking lot: places to go.

Crossing the parking lot: places to go.

Boo!

Outdoor walks bring surprises in autumn. Some are pleasant — others not so much.

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Animal skull found in the garden. Possum? Racoon?

Last fall, I came across this skull lying on top of the stone wall in a section of the garden I rarely visit.  The bleached-out, toothy head was nestled in crispy, fallen leaves and lichen. Its hollowed-out face made my heart beat faster — I wondered what fate had befallen this little critter. Did it die a natural death, or was there some trauma that brought about its demise?

I know there’s a whole world of activity outside the house each night when it gets dark and still. I hear strange sounds — owls, deer, insects, and other wildlife that come and go through the night. It’s all mysterious, and part of the natural cycle.

Praying Mantis

Late-Season Praying Mantis

Fortunately, I don’t see many skulls on my daylight walks. I prefer surprises like this praying mantis that caught me off guard yesterday. It was giving me a big-eyed, curious, Happy Halloween kind of stare  as I got ready to hook up the garden hose.

Red Mulberry Tree: Birds Gather Round

A few weeks ago, a cacaphony of wing-fluttering and bird calls came from the direction of the creek in the back of the house. It was LOUD out there and I had to go investigate.

The cause of the commotion? The mulberries were ripening. A mature red mulberry, the native Morus rubra, was the source of big-time, early-summer bounty.  Several kinds of birds were in a fruit-picking frenzy. They darted back and forth in the treetops and in the sky, their varied shapes outlined against the clouds. They were happy, happy, happy — especially the bluejays.

The birds appreciate our 35-40′ mulberry, but sometimes I forget about the tree when the berries aren’t ripening. Its foliage is high and it’s nestled among a group of other native trees — hemlock, tulip tree, sugar maple, and sycamore — that make up the landscape canopy along the creek. Some years, I’m out of town and the birds strip all the berries while I’m gone. But when I’m here, and the fruit start to ripen,  the scraggly, unpretentious mulberry becomes the star of the garden.

The vegetation under the mulberry is thick — both at canopy and ground level — so it’s hard to see the berries when they fall. Some of the berries land on the lawn (i.e weed/moss area) in the sun, so they’re easier to spot.

Morus rubra fruit

Morus rubra fruit

Guess who else was out there getting a bellyful of berries? A squirrel (naturally) that kept jumping from one limb to another, pausing just long enough to stuff it’s mouth full. Here’s a blurry picture of him/her semi-camouflaged in the leaves.

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Birds? What birds?

Not far from the “mother” mulberry, there’s a seedling — also a red mulberry — about 10′ tall. The yellow leaf in the photo below is actually from the mother mulberry, while the big green one is from the seedling. Leaf variation is common with mulberries, although I suspect the yellow leaf was under stress and assumed its fall coloration.

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Morus rubra leaf variation – two trees

It pleases me to look in the direction of the big mulberry and realize there’s not an exotic tree in sight — an increasingly rare experience in the home landscape. (Note: You will see some wonderful non-native specimens trees nearby, including a Korean stewartia, fullmoon maple and Japanese umbrella pine. There’s definitely a mix in my garden).

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Mulberry among the native trees by the creek

The mulberry trunk is in heavy shade. It likes the moist acidic soil above the creek. Judging from the shape of the tree, it probably started as a seedlling. I love having it in at the edge of the woods but would not want it near a patio or deck.

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Red mulberry bark

If I had been more diligent I would have lingered in the shady spot under the mulberry and hemlock tree and collected some of the inch-long berries to make jam. I did pick up a few to keep in a bowl in the refrigerator, just for the pleasure of looking at something from my own yard, mixed-in with fruits and vegetables from someone else’s land.

I left the rest of the berries for the birds. Maybe next year I’ll get the squirrel’s share.

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Ripening mulberries (Morus rubra) and immature wild grapes

 

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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Blue Billow and the Bees

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The graceful, waist-high Hydrangea serrata ‘Blue Billow’ is full of blooms now, despite its not-so-ideal location in the shade of tall hemlocks. I should move this little beauty, but I’m reluctant: Sometimes the deer forget it’s here (is that possible?) and I get to enjoy the blooms and bee activity  longer than if the plant had roots in a more sunny, less-isolated place. To see it now, I have to wiggle in behind the ‘Summer Snowflake’ viburnum and other foliage, but it’s always worth the risk of stepping on a snake or lizard or something to see the pollinators abuzzing.

This morning, the bees were having mid-air ballets with Blue Billow florets. Their hind legs were loaded with pollen. I swear the bees preferred the pink flowers. If that’s the case, why?

I love the lacecaps so much. Mopheads are mostly good for big, floppy arrangements, in my opinion. I’m sure most hydrangea aficionados would take me to task for saying that, but isn’t that what makes gardening fun — that we all like something different? My nightmare is that I will wake up one day and the only plants left on earth will be  ‘Stella de Oro’ daylilies, yellow arborvitaes, and leyland cypress, all surrounded with orange, rubber mulch. The nature lovers and gardeners I know won’t let that happen, but it’s still a ver..r..y scary thought!