Monday, August 18, 2008

Gone with the Lawn

At my house we have been in the process of renovating the exterior for many months. This work required that we move many plants both to make way for change (a new patio) and to keep them out of harm’s way. Sadly, because the renovation took so much longer than expected, some of the plants in the nursery didn’t survive Georgia’s drought and watering restrictions. However, now that the worst of work on the house is complete, I’m finally able to get into the yard and work on the landscaping in earnest.

For the front yard we have decided that growing grass is a losing proposition. There is too little sun. And without the ability to irrigate (due to the drought) there is too much competition from large maple and crepe myrtle trees.

Instead we are going to create a combination woodland and cottage style garden. The entire front yard will become one big garden (see the mulch) with paths running through. As I mentioned in my Inkslinger Chronicles blog post this week, we are creating rustic paths with leftover brick and pavers made of concrete and pea gravel.

In the shady areas we will plant fern, hosta, cardinal flower and other shade loving herbaceous plants, along with some native shrubs such as azaleas, hydrangeas, and sweet shrub. In the tiny corner of the yard that receives several hours of sun each day, I have already planted a rose bush, a couple of peonies, several varieties of flocks, some Route 66 day lilies, and one of my favorites, bee balm. I’m also thinking about a short wrought iron fence across the front – probably just knee high – to give the space more definition.

After the 9/11 tragedy many people were talking about the increase of American flags flying on front porches – ours included. I decided to take that a step further and create a color garden (red, white and blue). Now I have a chance to do that on a larger scale.

As with all gardens, this will be more of an evolution than a revolution, but at least I have some of the bones in place (paths and some shrubs). I’ll wait for cooler weather and the hope of fall and winter rains to plant more.

Some of the bones are in place for the back yard landscape as well. The patio is finally complete, and I have started to lay new edging and paths. Many of the plants are in position, but the whole is lacking in fullness and a couple of tons of mulch. Hopefully by spring both the front and back yards will be lush and worthy of photographs.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

If Only You Could Smell the Jasmine

I wandered out into the garden this morning intending to get one quick picture. Here is my photo essay of what happened next…

For several years I’ve been trying to convert the front yard into a red, white and blue color garden with mostly native plants. Problem was, I couldn’t get native plants with all three colors to bloom at the same time. Well happy day! This morning I realized that my

Indian pinks (Spigelia marilandica),

Foxglove beardtongue (penstemon digitalis),

and Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) were all blooming in the little corner bed by the driveway.

Don’t I have a cute dog?

Here she is stalking a squirrel.

Oh look, the first daylily bloom of the season. This one is Stella doro (Hemerocallis ‘Stella de Oro’)

It’s a shame how the rain knocked down the False indigo (baptisia australis). They were really looking great last week.

Oh. What’s that over there? Have the clematis started to bloom?

Is this the sweetest plant? Viticella alba luxurians is one of my favorite clematis.

The purple center and lime green edges to the petals are really striking.

Oops. You caught me. Just a quick peak through the fence to see if the neighbor is doing anything with his garden yet.

Looks like the Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is really going to town. I can’t wait to see what this will look like in a couple of years!

Finally! I’ve been waiting for this native Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) to bloom for three years. I almost lost it in a late frost last year, but this year I covered it.

It’s about time this Climbing hydrangea (decumaria barbara) finally decided to climb. It’s been wandering around on the ground for ages.

Don’t you love American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens). It’s so much better behaved than its Chinese cousin. That stuff will eat your house!

Through all my wandering, Lady strikes a peaceful pose and looks on.

Most of all, I wish I could let you smell the jasmine. This Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) isn’t native. It was introduced and has escaped gardens to grow wild in a few spots in Florida. I probably should rip it out of the pots (it’s growning up the posts of the carport). But, I just can’t do it. The scent is too sweet.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Plant Profile: False indigo (Baptisia australis)

Nursery Update
What a difference a few weeks make. At the beginning of the month, I had just started to dig the plants that were in the way of renovations. Now more than three weeks later, we are still waiting on the City of Atlanta to issue a permit for our new patio, the nursery spots we selected to hold over shade and sun perennials are overflowing and everything else is up and blooming.

Though we are still suffering a level 4 drought here in the Piedmont region of Georgia, we fortunately had a great deal of rain over the weekend, which has left everything looking lush and me eager to get planting. Ah well. In the absence of a renewed nearly native garden to show you, let’s talk about one of my favorite native plants that is just starting to pop in an undisturbed area of the garden.

False Indigo (Baptisia australis)
Baptisia is a stiking member of the pea family that blooms here in my garden from late April through early June depending on the species. This photo taken today doesn’t do it justice as the deep indigo blue flowers are just starting to pop out, and you can see how many more there are to come on each flower stalk. These three to four foot tall flower spikes rise high above the trifoliate (three leaflets) foliage mound of blue green leaves.

How it grows
Native to the United States, Blue false indigo or Wild blue indigo is present in all of Eastern, Central and Southern states with the exception of Louisianna and Mississippi, though it may have been introduced to New England. While it is present in a wide range the plant is classified as threatened in Indiana, Maryland and N. Carolina, endangered in Ohio and of special concern in Kentucky. As the common name suggests, this plant was used by early settlers as a substitute for indigofera, a dyestuff from the West Indies.

Baptisia will self sow, and seed can be collected when seed pods turn charcoal black and seeds can be heard to rattle within. These seeds can be directly sown in the ground in the fall or in the spring. However, older seeds will benefit from immersion in boiling water to begin to breakdown the hardened seed shell. The tough roots can also be divided in fall or early spring while the plant is dormant. If sown from seed, the plant may take up to three years to bloom but once established will form a spreading colony that is three to four foot wide. The preferred environment is full sun with well drained soil, however Baptisia will accept part day shade and drier soils, and has proven quite drought tolerant here in Atlanta.

Though B. australis bears dark blue to purple flowers, other species and cultivars are commercially available with white, yellow and smoke (white crossbred with blue) flowers. The flower shape is reminiscent of a lupine bloom or that on an English pea. In my garden, the white plant (B. alba) blooms a bit earlier. This photo taken today shows that the bloom is quite advanced compared to its neighbor.

Seasonal interest
I’m always looking for native plants that provide multi-season interest and Baptisia does not disappoint. If not cut back after bloom time dark charcoal colored seed pods will develop which provide interest in the garden, great additions to dried flower arrangements, and wonderful rattles for the amusement of children and pets.

Having said that, False indigo is on the FDA’s list of toxic plants. There have been no reports of poisoning in humans and none in animals since a report published in 1930. Also, it is supposed to be quite unpalatable to animals. Nevertheless, close supervision is required in the garden as both toddlers and puppies tend to explore their environment with their mouth. Even if the worst that happens is a belly ache, it is best avoided.

More information
Check out this Plant Delights Nursery webpage for Tony Avent’s wonderful article on the different species, hybrids, and selections of Baptisia.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Spring Blooming Ground Cover: Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum)

We are rennovating here in Atlanta including elimination of our existing 1980s deck and expansion of an exsisting patio to create a more fitting outdoor room for our 1930s bungalow home. As one change inevitably leads to another, I’m been moving plants that are in the way and planning revisions to the gardens that will surround the patio.

One of the plants I’m relocating is a large patch of Green and gold – one of the few native groundcovers we have that works in shade. The first thing that struck me about the plant was how fast it spreads.

When I purchased this plant in spring 2005 it was growing in a one gallon pot. Just two years later it had spread to fill a space nearly five foot by five. In looking at species account online, I find that many sources list the spread as infinite. That’s a great investment if you have a large area to fill quickly.

The Details
Appearance – Green and Gold is a semi-evergreen plant (more so in the warmer portion of it’s range) with hairy leaves and many five petaled yellow flowers rising above the foliage. A Northern variety is a much taller upright specimen than the prostate creeper found here in the south, which usually tops out at three to six inches.
Bloom time – beginning in late March through the fall – more sporadically in the heat of summer.
How it grows – individual plants spread from above ground runners and division is the easiest method of propagation. In fact, division every couple of years is quite beneficial to the plant.
Preferred environment – the most important criteria is well drained soil with filtered shade or morning only sun. Deep shade will result in minimal blooms and full sun will require substantial irrigation. Zones 5-9
Native Range – found throughout most of the Eastern United States, but endangered in Kentucky and Pennsylvania and threatened Tennessee and Ohio
Derivation of name – a member of the aster family, the name for Chrysogonum is derived from the Greek chrys meaning gold and gon meaning offspring. It is also sometimes known as Goldenstar.

The Nursery
Because this project is happening in stages, many of the plants I’m moving can’t be transplanted to their new locations until after the new patio is built. I’ve created both a sun and a shade nursery to carry them over until they can go back into the ground. Friends and family are also going to benefit from the overflow.

So far, I’ve only dug up about 1/3 of the Green and gold, and I already have 11 gallon pots and two full flats of a four inch pots. Likewise with Small Sundrops Oenothera perennis. I have a couple dozen pots of this great sun perennial from the evening primrose family.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Spring Ephemeral Plant Profile: Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

Another early perennial here in Georgia is the Rue anemone. First appearing in March, this delicate plant has a long bloom time – often into June, but becomes completely dormant in Summer. At full bloom this plant will only reach six to nine inches tall.

Growing naturally on wooded slopes and ridges, this plant prefers part shade, but will tolerate full shade in acidic humus rich well drained soil. Found through out the east, Rue anemone extends west to Louisianna, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wisconsin. Threatened in New Hampshire and believed to be extirpated in Maine, there is also concern about this plant in Rhode Island and Florida. However, throughout the Piedmont and Blue Ridge Rue anemone is quite common.

Propagation is by division, root cuttings, or seed. However, seeds require cold moist stratification for three months to germinate well. Seedlings will take two to three years to flower, but this plant is worth the wait.

Rue anemone may be most easily identified by the leaf structure. Though the leaves are sometimes described as whorled, what appears to be individual leaves may actually be three stemmed leaflets from an un-stemmed leaf. This would make the arrangement opposite instead of whorled. These rounded leaflets have three shallowly notched lobes on top and two where the stem is attached. The stems are dark and wiry in appearance and grow from a cluster of tuberous roots.

The flowers of Rue anemone are the most conspicuous feature. White flowers, occasionally tinged with pale pink display five to ten petal-like sepals (most often five) and up to fifteen greenish yellow stamens – each of which will produce a seed. Though flowers up to one inch across appear clustered, each has its own stem.

Formerly classified as Anemonella thalictroides by Linneas based on the umbelliform inforescences, it is now properly classified as Thalictrum Thalictroides and a member of the Crowfoot or Buttercup Family Ranunculaceae. Thalictrum is from the Greek thaliktron meaning a plant with divided leaves. The name is attributed to Dioscorides, the Greek physician and author of De Materia Medica the precursor of all modern pharmacopeias. Anemonella in Greek means small windflower in reference to the fact that this flower resembles a small anemone, and trembles at the slightest breeze. For this reason, the plant is also commonly called windflower.

A similar plant, False Rue Anemone (Isopyrum biternatum) is distinct in that the leaves present three separate lobes whereas the Rue Anemone leaflet is only slightly notched.

As always, I would be glad to hear any questions you might have, and to hear about your experience with this plant.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Spring Ephemeral Plant Profile: Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

A very early spring bloomer here in Georgia, Trout lily can be found in small groups of a few dozen, but more often forms large colonies. This herbaceous perennial prefers rich woods with slightly acidic well drained soil in semi-shade. Native to Eastern N. American it can be found from New Brunswick to Florida and west to Ontario and Arkansas.

Propagation is by seed or transplantation of the corm in fall. In nature, the Trout lily is pollinated by ants that also may disperse the seed. However, a plant grown from seed may take up to eight years to mature and reproduce. If propagating by corms, these should be planted deep for their size (three to five inches) and you may expect the colony to multiply from offshoots of this corm.

This plant can best be identified by two distinctive basal leaves. These are a shinny dark green and mottled purple. The leaves grow approximately three inches long and one inch wide. Overall, Trout lily will reach a height of four to ten inches.
Flower color can range from very pale to bright yellow shows brownish streaks on the sepals, which may be lighter than the primary petals. In size it can be up to three inches across with six tepals (3 petals and 3 sepals) folding upwards. When the petals are fully reflexed, the bloom is approximately one inch across.

The name Trout lily derives from the speckled leaves, which remind us of a speckled trout. Also known as Dogtooth violet (referring to the shape of the bulb), this plant is definitely a member of the lily family (Liliaceae) and not a violet. Other common names include Adder’s tongue, Serpent’s tongue, Yellow Adder’s tongue, Yellow fawn-lily and Yellow snowdrop.

Trout lily is reported to have been used by many Native American groups as a contraceptive, and as fish bait. However, it is known to have strong emetic properties and not recommend consumption by humans or pets.

A similar plant in appearance, the white flowered Trout lily is actually a different species E. Albidum, and is quite rare.

Over the next few weeks, I will provide plant profiles for several other spring ephemerals native to the United States. In addition, I would be happy to entertain any questions you might have, and to hear about the experience of others around the country who are growing these plants – especially if in urban gardens.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Best of Spring

"No winter lasts forever. No spring skips its turn. April is a promise that May is bound to keep. And we know it.”
Hal Borland’s memorable quote is understandable for a man born in Nebraska and who lived most of his adult life in New England. Here in Georgia, his April begins in mid-February. Now I start walking in my garden each day to see if any spring ephemerals have burst through the earth. The daffodils are already putting on a pretty respectable show and by March, I will have Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum), Toadshade trillium (T. sessile), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming.

What do I mean by spring ephemeral? A purist would tell you that spring blooming herbaceous plants such as bloodroot, jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and most of the genus Trillium don’t qualify. While they bloom around the same time as true spring ephemerals, these pretenders retain leaves and ripen fruit well after the forest leaf canopy closes off sunlight to the ground.

Spring ephemerals then are early plants that complete their annual cycle in the space of a few weeks – typically six to eight. Thriving on the sunlight available before the over and understory trees and shrubs leaf out, they emerge, grow leaves, flower, are pollinated and drop seed, then go dormant in rapid succession. Interestingly these plants are rarely annuals, but rather perennial plants that return year after year. Many attract ants, which disperse their seeds.

It is likely that your grandmother called these plants wildflowers, and many still use this term however, it is ambiguous at best. Some think of wildflowers as these spring ephemerals while others apply the word to any plant that grows wild. Today we prefer to differentiate between native species that were naturally occurring in the area prior to European colonization, and exotic or introduced species. Further, we designate some plants are invasive species meaning that they out-compete other plants. Naturalized plants are those that have been introduced to an area, but are now considered by the public as native (Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica and Mimosa Albizia julibrissin) are a good example of this confusion here in the south. But I digress.

Though spring ephemerals bloom earliest here in the south, those of you from northern climates will see many of the same plants in April and May. One of my personal favorites is the Trout lily (Erythronium americanum). Tomorrow I will post a profile of this wonderful plant.

All photos for this article were obtained through Forestry Images, a joint project of the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service. Please consider joining. It’s Free! And, you can help a great free online resource for plant images grow and evolve.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Scribd NOT Scribed

Oops. That would be Scribd.

Georgia Gardening Articles Online

Just a quick note to let you know that I’ve started posting previously published articles I wrote for Georgia Gardening Magazine on Scribed. Scroll down through the items on the right hand sidebar to find the links. These articles have been posted with the permission of the publisher, and retain traditional copyright protection. More coming soon…

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Growing Redwoods in Atlanta?

Recently my husband has been suffering with a frozen shoulder. As is typical with such maladies, the treatment may be worst than the illness. However, typical of living with me, his interactions in the world provide fodder for my columns. This week he came home from physical therapy with a question. Someone at the clinic wanted to know, “Can you grow a Redwood in Atlanta, Georgia?”

Of course my first thought, and question was, “Did you mean Redbud?” A Redbud is a lovely understory tree that does very well in Atlanta – both as a tree for wild habitat restoration, and as a street tree.

“No”, he responded. “They want to grow a giant Redwood tree, like the ones in California.” Well this seemed a pretty unlikely candidate to me. Even if you could grow such a tree here, would you want to? I thought I had better do some research before I responded. Here is what I found out.

Where do they grow in the wild?
Unlike many North American trees such as Oak Quercus L. and Maple Acer L., of which one species or another grow natively in virtually every state, the two species we think of as Redwoods (both Redwood Sequoia sempervirens known as the California coast redwood, and Giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum also known as the Sierra redwood) only grow in a very small region of the west coast.

S. sempervirens is found in a narrow band along the coast of Northern California and Southern Oregon, and S. giganteum grows only on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada in California.

© Photographer: Michael-john Wolfe Agency:

Does this mean that they can’t grow elsewhere?
Apparently not. According to the website of the American Park Network, which provides information about Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, fossil remains indicated that these trees grew worldwide prior to the last ice age.

Welker's Grove Nursery in Auberry California is actively growing and shipping saplings all over the country. They recommend the Giant Sequoia especially as a good tree for privacy screens and windbreaks. In containers, they can be maintained at a manageable size, using bonsai techniques of root and branch pruning. However, the climate of North American is substantially different than it was 175 million years ago. To grow these trees successfully outside of their current native habitat will require some effort.

What do these plants need to thrive?
The Redwood forests in northern California thrive on the cool moist fog belt of the region. Giant Sequoia grow in a small region on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada range, which is constantly watered by mountain run-off, streams and springs. Both species require deep well drained soil and plenty of moisture. This means that in the Piedmont region of Georgia where I live, the clayey soil would require substantial amendment.

In addition to soil requirements, they are very susceptible to drought and drying from wind. Unlike many plants that prefer a good soaking followed by a chance to dry out, these require constant moist soil. On the other hand, they can not tolerate standing in water, or mud, so planting on a riverbank is not a good solution. In our region, it seems the only way to ensure adequate moisture will be with irrigation, and probably with its own separate zone and different watering schedule than you other plants.

If growing in a container, you should be aware that these trees can suck up all of the moisture in less than a day, and once the roots start to wither, you are sunk.

What to expect
Compared to our southern Longleaf pine Pinus palustris or Loblolly pine Pinus taeda with heights 120 and 100 feet respectively, the redwoods are giants. Giant Sequoia will grow to 200 feet at maturity with a 40 foot base. Redwood will reach 250 feet with a 22 foot base and is generally thought to be the tallest tree in the world. Specimens of both have been found in the wild that far exceed these dimensions. In addition, you can expect growth of 5 feet or more in height per year!

The Giant Sequoia is not as tall but more broad than the Redwood, and in terms of volume (height and girth), this is the largest living organism on earth.

Photo credit © Photographer: Amelia Takacs Agency:

In addition to providing several of the specimens on the world largest tree list (the largest living sequoia is 275 feet tall and 32 feet in diameter) these trees are also the longest lived. Some have been estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 years old.

What’s in a name?
Sequoia is named for a man with the same name (sometimes spelled Sequoyah) who was the son of a Britich merchant and a Cherokee woman and also the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet. Sempervirens is from the latin “semper” meaning always and “vivere” to live. Thus it means evergreen.

The Giant Sequoia’s scientific name of Sequoiadendron is derived from Sequoia and the Greek “dendron” meaning tree and giganteum meaning huge.

Think you would like to give these giants a try? Learn more about growing giant sequoias in your landscape and about growing them in containers.

Monday, January 21, 2008

What is a Native?

It occurs to me that some might stumble on this blog seeking an explanation of what we mean by native plants. The short answer is that most native plant groups in the United States define a native plant as one that was growing in the region prior to the arrival of European settlement.

This is different from a plant that is naturalized. We all are familiar with plants that we see growing wild along the roadside or in the woods or meadows of undeveloped land. However, many of these plants are, in fact, exotics that have escaped from garden cultivation. Before they were growing in the wild, some well meaning individual or nurseryman imported these plants to this country from other regions such as Europe (English Ivy), Asia (Privet and Kudzu), or Latin America (Sorrel also known as Oxalis).

In addition to plants that are found in wild areas, some native species have been cultivated to reinforce specific characteristics. Most often today, this is achieved through cloning of an especially attractive or hardy individual plant. While these plants are great for gardeners, they do not have the genetic diversity of wild plants. Whenever we select for particular characteristics whether through cloning or more traditional methods of breeding, we risk the possibility of also reinforcing negative characteristics that might remain recessive in a natural match. Such plants may be susceptible to a whole host of unanticipated problems. Temple Grandin provides some humorous and tragic examples of this in her book Animals in Translation.

Why does this matter?
Native plants have evolved over millennia in specific regions, and are a part of an interdependent ecosystem. Because of this they are uniquely adapted to that region’s climate (both temperature and rainfall), and the soils and geology. Other organisms in the region have also evolved to depend on these plants. Wildlife depends on specific fruits for food and specific insects have evolved to be able to pollinate particular plants.

One of the problems with imported or “exotic” plants is that a few have become highly invasive. Because they out compete the local native plants, they are altering the natural environment. The natural controls that would have kept these plants in check, such as disease and insects, are not present in their new environment. Continued use of these plants in gardens and planted landscapes, and the subsequent escape to wild areas, increases the risk to native flora and fauna. Look at the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council website for more information on this topic.

Benefits of Natives
If properly matched with site conditions, native plants will require very little maintenance, such as pruning, feeding, and protection with insecticides, fungicides, etc. Also, they are likely to be more drought and disease tolerant than many exotic plants. As mentioned, native plants provide a diverse and sometimes essential food and shelter for wildlife, and promote biodiversity.

Five Things You Can Do
  • Learn about native plants and the natural communities where they grow
  • Buy only nursery propagated plant material
  • Don’t take native plants from wild areas unless the area is scheduled for destruction due to development, and you have the permission of the landowner
  • Protect native plant and natural habitat areas
  • Plant locally native plant species wherever possible

Sources for native plants in the Southeast from the Georgia Native Plant Society website.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


When the developers of the Georgian Highlands asked Cynthia Hendry to landscape their Mountain Laurel Show Home, she intended to take a look but say no. She works almost exclusively in Big Canoe, another mountain community in North Georgia. However, the site and the vision of the developers – to create a nature preserve that sustains human habitat with little or no impact to the natural environment – caused her to reconsider. Ramesh Venugopal, the managing partner, is passionate about preserving the area. For him, “The year-round beauty of the Georgian Highlands is due, in large part, to its beautiful vistas adorned by native plants.”

Located at the gateway to the Southern Appalachians, the Georgian Highlands offers three to ten acre high-elevation home sites in a 3500-acre parcel surrounded by three national forests and thousands of acres of protected wilderness area. Jim Smith, a retired forester, tells us, “The deciduous hardwood forest has been undisturbed for many years, and the acidic soils of this pristine environment support a rich understory of smaller trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and herbaceous plants. Our goal is to create a community within a park rather than a park within a community.”

With this vision in mind, Cynthia was asked to create a landscape that would demonstrate the ideal, and serve as a sort of botanical garden of native plant ideas for new residents to use in designing their own landscapes.

The biggest challenge was an expanse of 30 feet from the back of the house’s two-story elevation to the forest edge of mature hardwoods. This area had to be completely cleared to build the septic field for the house. In addition, the slope of the site presented some unique demands. As I toured the site with Cynthia, Jim, and Ramesh, they explained some of the elements to consider when integrating a home site with the natural environment and trying to recover from construction.

1. Create windows through the trees. While clearing or topping trees can improve the view, these methods can have a negative impact on both the environment and privacy. In winter, leaves fall from the trees opening up views naturally. Minimal pruning can create windows to admire the view during other seasons of the year. A bonus is the changing view as new growth appears in the spring and frames the view with spectacular color in the fall.

2. Reuse all materials found onsite. Walk the entire site and identify plants to save. Look for perennials and ferns that can be transplanted – especially those that need division. The strategic placement of moss can make the garden appear more mature, and helps to blend the landscape into the surroundings. At Mountain Laurel, a spectacular stand of Carolina Silverbell trees near the house was carefully protected during construction. The few trees that had to be removed were turned into mulch. Thick topsoil was transferred from disturbed areas and used elsewhere.

3. Make a natural looking transition from house elevation to forest edge. Rather than grading, protect against erosion and navigate the natural slope with paths and structure. Cynthia made wide “S” curving paths that follow the contour lines of the property and create shallow descents. Stone smoothed by years of exposure was stacked in softly curving lines to retain the slopes. The big challenge was to select plant material that visually supported the architecture of the house and made the transition to the woodland. A few fast growing tall trees were needed in addition to understory trees, and shrubs. Because we have very few native evergreens suited to this elevation, Cynthia selected natives from elsewhere in the Southeast that she felt could adapt and thrive. For example, Bald Cypress Taxodium distichum is a highly adaptable, fast growing tree reaching to 70 feet with a narrow pyramidal habit. Even without a lawn, areas for relaxing should be included. Think about how the scene will evolve as the landscape matures to ensure trees and shrubs won’t block the view.

4. Match the right plant to the site. Consider plant and site conditions. For example, different plant communities thrive on dry, south facing slopes than appear on stream banks or cool, north facing slopes. Cynthia’s final design included 143 different species, so do choose a wide variety of plant materials. As you arrange the plants, think about how they grow naturally. Some tend to form dense colonies, while others are found widely dispersed. For more information on native plants, visit the the Georgia Native Plant Society website.
Most of all, don’t introduce exotic invasives that can actually harm the environment. Though Kudzu is not sold in nurseries, many of the most invasive plants can still be found in the nursery trade, including Chinese privet Ligustrum sinense and English Ivy Hedera helix. For more information on invasive pest plants, visit the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council website.

5. Bring the outdoors inside with the sound of water.
Cynthia built three long streambeds, which all emptied into a large pool with babbling waterfalls. Not a small undertaking, the 200 feet of streambed and pool areas used many tons of worn and moss-covered fieldstone from Tennessee and Arkansas.
6. Plan for low maintenance. Properly sited native plants withstand regional temperature and moisture extremes better than many exotics. By planting in the fall and early spring, plants become established before the stressful summer season, potentially avoiding the need for irrigation. Without a large expanse of grass lawn, mowing is eliminated. And, the use of a bog area as part of a natural filtration system can significantly reduce maintenance of ponds.
Hendry says, “While the landscape might look a bit contrived at first, as the plantings, mosses, and lichens grow and weather, the entire work will appear to be part of the forest.”

Cynthia Hendry owns Woodland Gardens in Big Canoe, GA and is well known for her extensive knowledge of Georgia natives. Donna Wright (Donna Wright Interiors) is also well known in Big Canoe and is an award winning nature photographer. Jim Smith works with the Georgian Highlands and others as a Native Plant Consultant and Registered Forester. He is also a past president of the Georgia Native Plant Society. More information on the Georgian Highlands can be found at The Georgian Highlands.

Photos courtesy Donna Wright and Jim Smith and Cynthia Hendry

This article was previously published in the March 2005 issue of Georgia Gardening Magazine

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Plants of the Okefenokee Swamp

“The prairies of the Okefenokee are gorgeous expanses of flower-studded wilderness. The growls of hidden alligators, piercing cries of sandhill cranes, and haunting cypress tress draped in Spanish moss create a place of primeval beauty” Writes Leslie Edwards for the Georgia Botanical Society. “Land of the Trembling Earth” to Native Americans, this unique ecosystem has been designated a National Wilderness Area, and remains one of the oldest and best preserved freshwater wetland areas in America.

The water throughout the swamp is clear but stained the color of iced tea by tannins and other products of decaying vegetation. The result of this decay is to make the swamp extraordinarily acidic, with an average pH value of 3.7. Add to this low levels of nitrogen and phosphorous and it is hard to believe that the swamp supports roughly 600 species of plants including pond cypress taxodium ascendens and bald cypress T. distichum.

Other trees found here include blackgum, loblolly-bay, sweet bay, and others. Carnivorous plants can be found in abundance including the best known and most obvious Pitcher Plants. Three varieties are found including golden trumpet pitcher Sarracenia flava; the hooded pitcher plant, Sarracenia minor and the parrot pitcher plant Sarracenia psittacina. Sundews Drosera L, Butterworts Pinguicula L. and Bladderworts Utricularia L. are also common.

Other plants to watch for include Golden Club Orontium aquaticum in the spring, Water Lilly Nymphaea odorata for its fragrance, Climbing Heath, Pieris phillyreifolia, Spanish Moss Tillandsia usneoides (not a true moss, but an air plant) and Southern Blue Flag Iris verginica.

For more information about the Okefenokee, see the United States Fish & Wildlife Service website for the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. According to this website, “the refuge, established in 1936, includes over 400, 000 acres of the swamp, and an additional 350,000 acres in the interior designated a National Wilderness Area.

To plan a visit for this and other Georgia destinations, visit the Sherpa Guides website.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Georgia Acid Lovers

The St. Lawrence River Valley, west of the Adirondack Mountains, is a far cry from the Piedmont Plateau of north and central Georgia. The gardening knowledge I picked up at the knee of my parents and grandparents hasn’t been much help to a transplant like me. Here in Atlanta, Georgia, the crocuses and daffodils start blooming in February. There, it isn’t unheard of to have a snowstorm in early May.
Fortunately, a friend introduced me to the Georgia Native Plant Society (GNPS). This organization, much like those in other parts of North America, was founded to educate the public regarding the preservation of our native plants. By encouraging the rescue and propagation of plants taken from the path of immediate development, GNPS discourages wild collection, and provide native plants for use in home and public gardens, including school projects and restoration of public lands.
Over the years of my association with the society, I learned some basic characteristics that make gardening in this part of Georgia different from other places I have lived. Between one third and one half of our soils are clayey, with the balance consisting of gray sandy soils, and due to extreme changes to the land from agricultural activities, mature climax forests (more than 150 years old) are rare and virgin forests are virtually non-existent.
Most importantly, the underlying rock of much of the Georgia piedmont causes the soil to be acidic. By way of example, a test of the acidity of lawns in Georgia conducted in 1984 found that 30% had a pH of 5.4 or below (strongly acid), 28% were between 5.5 and 5.9 (moderately acid) and only 42% fell in the range of 6.0 and above (slightly acid). Add to this research, which concludes that acid rain has accelerated natural soil acidification, and it is clear that learning about acid loving plants is a smart investment wherever you live.
A few of my favorite acid lovers are profiled in this article. Several of these plants (including Sourwood, Mountain Laurel, Trailing Arbutus, Piedmont Azalea, and Blueberry) fall into the Ericaceae or Heath family, which are the first plants to come to mind as acid lovers.
Sourwood Oxydendrum arboreum
Each year, the GNPS selects one plant native to our state to be honored as plant of the year. In 2004, the membership voted for Sourwood, a small to medium sized tree. Appropriate as a focal point in southern gardens, this tree provides multi-season interest.
After the usual spring show of flowering trees and shrubs, the Sourwood offers its pretty summer blooms – cascades of white bell-shaped flowers. These flowers give the tree one of its many common names, the lily-of-the-valley tree. One of the first trees to begin the fall color show, it continues to offer interest well into the winter. Attractive fruit, which matures during September and October, remain on the tree to disperse seed from the open capsule throughout the winter. Further Sourwood possesses a distinctive bark that is gray, tinged with red, deeply fissured, with narrow, scaly ridges especially at the base.
Though the tree has been known to reach 60 feet, and one rare specimen found in 1982 by the Ohio Forestry Association in Vinton County, Ohio was measured at 75 feet, generally it is much smaller.
Also known as sorrel-tree, sour gum, or elk tree, its flowers are an important source of honey in some areas. Sourwood is among the latest of the flowering shrubs and trees to bloom, and is a great source for honeybees, as most other trees are spring bloomers.
“A slow grower, the Sourwood might not seem a natural choice for homeowners, but the patience it takes to establish this southern classic will be rewarded with a truly distinctive year round beauty in the landscape,” said Mary Tucker, who manages the plant of the year program. Though difficult to transplant, the Sourwood is available from select mail order and online nursery sources, and is native throughout the South, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Eastern Mid-West states. It is advertised to be suited for zones 5 to 9.
Oakleaf Hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia
Selected as Alabama wildflower in 1999 and the GNPS Plant of the Year in 2000, the Oakleaf Hydrangea is another native for year round enjoyment. Pale gray green leaves emerge in early spring, and are soon followed by large creamy cone shaped flower clusters. As the blossoms age, they shift from light pink through rosy tones to a final tan. These clusters hang onto the plant well into late fall and early winter. The leaves provide interest as well. Large and reminiscent of oak-leaves, these turn to rich reds, purples and burgundies in late fall and often remain on the plant through November and early December. In winter as the blossoms and foliage finally fall, the interesting structure of the branches, accented by colorful exfoliating bark provides a pleasing accent. Unlike Bigleaf hydrangea H. macrophylla these blossoms do not change color based on soil pH.
Planted in moist, well-drained acid soil in part to full shade, these plants are quite drought tolerant once established, and work well in the landscape in the shrub border, as a specimen or massed at the edge of a wooded area. Expect properly sited plants to reach a height and spread of eight feet or more. Especially in warm climates, it is important to ensure plants are shaded from afternoon sun. Native only to a small region of the Southeast, many Oakleaf Hydrangea cultivars are sold as hardy to zone 5. However, Michael A. Dirr, a professor and well known horticultural author from the University of Georgia, tells us you might expect some dieback and winter kill of flower buds with extended temperatures of minus 20 degrees F.
Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia
The state flower of both Connecticut (adopted in 1907) and Pennsylvania (adopted 1933), the Mountain Laurel is found throughout Eastern United States, and as an exotic in Quebec and is sold as hardy from zones 4-9. This evergreen shrub can be difficult to transplant. However once established in a proper site with moist well-drained acid soil (4.5 to 5.5 pH) and part shade to full sun (consider a north or east-facing slope, which limits the afternoon sun for southern climates), mature plants can reach five to twelve feet tall with a similar spread. The more recent ‘elf’ variety can be expected to achieve only three feet.
One of the more colorful names for this evergreen shrub is Calico Bush. So named for the pink edged white blossoms produced in terminal clusters four to six inches across, creating an image reminiscent of calico fabrics.
Mountain Laurel is extremely toxic in all its parts to humans and livestock and other animals. In fact, one study suggests that when eaten by Canadian pheasants the poison is communicated to those who feed on the birds.
On rescues, a common companion plant is Trailing Arbutus Epigaea repens. This plant is a rare evergreen groundcover blossoming in late winter with pale pink flowers. Both plants can be finicky to transplant from the wild. For the Trailing Arbutus that I recently acquired from a rescue, I was advised to add ground up ferrous sulfate tablets (1-2 per eight inch planting) to the soil to increase acidity.
Piedmont Azalea Rhododendron canescens
In 1979, the native azalea was chosen as Georgia's state wildflower, and many species and varieties are found across Georgia. In fact, there are some thirteen species of deciduous azaleas native to the state. Additionally, due to overlap of distribution and blooming season, we see many interspecific hybrids along with introgression (when a hybrid back breeds with one parent species only resulting in plants that generally look like one species but have some genes of the other). This can make species identification a significant challenge.
While the Great Rhododendron Rhododendron maximum, also profiled in this issue, is native to Georgia, I want to talk about one of our most stunning natives – Piedmont Azalea Rhododendron canescens. The earliest blooming of the native azaleas (March and April), this deciduous shrub is well known for its vivid display of pink or white, fragrant clustered blooms.
Selected by the GNPS as our 2001 plant of the year, is also sometimes misnamed as Wild Honeysuckle, but our Piedmont Azalea has little in common with the West Coast native. You may also find this plant listed as the Florida Pinxter Azalea, and though typically considered a southern species, it is hardy enough to see wider landscape use. Commonly available from native plant nurseries, this prominent plant is often rejected by others in the belief that gardeners will not purchase deciduous azaleas.
Piedmont Azalea makes a spectacular spring show since the flowers open before the leaves have expanded. A mature plant can be expected to grow to ten feet and more with an upright habit. Rich, moist acid soil in light shade, but receiving some direct sun, or high filtered shade, as found under tall trees or at the forest edge and on stream banks, form an ideal environment.
When attempting to rescue these plants, it is important to know that the root system is not deep, but includes many far-reaching lateral runners. Saving as many of these runners as possible is critical to success. Also, local experts recommend soaking the plants overnight in a tub of water to counteract shock, and reducing the foliage by one third prior to transplanting. This can be done by clipping every third leaf in the cluster, or by removing the tips of all leaves – a daunting process with larger plants. Typically, the smaller the plant the easier it will be to dig and transplant.
Low Bush Blueberry Vaccinium pallidum
Also known Hillside Blueberry, a synonym for this deciduous shrub is Vaccinium vacillans. One of the identifying characteristics of this plant is the pale backside of the leaf. It is present throughout the Eastern and North Central United States and Ontario, and the fruit provides a valuable food source for many small birds and mammals. Though the berries are sweet and can be used in pies and jellies, it ripens over a long period of time, causing collection in quantity to be difficult. Native Americans dried the berries and pounded them together with strips of venison to season their pemmican.
I rescued a number of these plants from a site in Snellville, GA, which is being developed. Like the Piedmont Azalea, this low growing shrub exhibits many longer runner roots, and it is helpful to preserve as much of this root system as possible. Despite care in collection and the overnight soaking method mentioned above, by day two I was doubtful that any would survive. However, following advice to prune the plants hard, they all re-sprouted and are shaped up as healthy specimens.
The site of this rescue included a dry sandy hill that was covered in the one to two foot tall plants under high dappled shade. For the home landscape, ensure well-drained acid soil – down to 4.5 pH – and at least partial sun.
Pretty bell shaped green-cream to pinkish flowers appear in early spring. I dug the plants mentioned above in the first week of April and the colony had nearly finished blooming. Around the same time, an important pollinator in our region, the Southeastern blueberry bee, starts flying. Elaine Nash, an active member of the botany community in Georgia, tells me that this bee “pollinates 100 % of Carolina Jessamine and a wide variety of other native plants. Since the drastic decline of honeybees, those plants in my yard that bloomed before the earliest blueberries, like Japanese Pieris, don't get pollinated.”
Fruit follows the flowers in June and July. Though many will argue that the wild berry is superior in flavor to cultivars, many different species of low bush blueberry are available for purchase from nurseries. While this specific species may be difficult to find, hybrids abound and researchers have found some success breeding early fruiting varieties for commercial use.
Callaway Ginger Hexastylis shuttleworthii var. harperii
Hank Bruno, Trails Manager at Callaway Gardens tells us that “Callaway Ginger Hexastylis shuttleworthii var. harperii was brought to the gardens by Fred Galle, Director of Horticulture, in 1965. It was among plants rescued from the estate of plant collector J.G.C. Bloodworth in Decatur, GA when that property was subdivided and developed. There was no record of the original location of the parent plant. Recognized as different from the species, Galle propagated and shared it with gardeners and nurserymen. It became known as Callaway ginger and is now widely cultivated. In 1987 botanist L.L. Gaddy assigned the varietal name harperii to this distinctly mottled ginger in honor of its original discoverer Roland Harper.” Though identified as Hexastylis here, you will often find the plant identified as Asarum shuttleworthii callaway.
Though the species is common in the mountains of the Carolinas and down through Georgia and Alabama, and forms an attractive evergreen groundcover, the harperii variety is rare in its range, and has suffered from habitat loss due to draining or filling of wetlands for development. The variety is shorter than other gingers – just three inches tall – which makes it easier to see the late spring flowers which are typically hidden under the leaves. These flowers are bell shaped with a purplish cast and appear in May. A relatively slow grower, it will take ten years to achieve a three foot wide patch, but the wait is worthwhile. The half dollar sized leaves with their dark green background and dramatic silver venation make a striking addition between rocks or among small ferns in a woodland garden. Hardy in zones 5-9, Callaway needs shade, good soil, and constant moisture. Too much sun may cause slight burning of the plant. Often found in acidic soils near Mountain Laurel, Rhododendrons and other acid loving plants, gingers are easy to identify by the strong ginger sent produced when the leaves are crushed. While the root can be used as a substitute for culinary ginger Zingiber officinale, the slow growing nature of the plant makes it impractical for this purpose.
Pink Lady’s Slipper Cypripedium acaule
The Pink Lady’s Slipper is a dramatic native orchid also known as Moccasin Flower, and found in acid woods, often near pines. Preferring full shade to partial sun with moist soil, Theresa Schrum, Vice President of the Georgia Native Plant Society told me she “once had a soil sample tested from a lady slipper site and the pH came back at 4.5! That's pretty acidic and this site was full of lady slippers that were spreading until the bulldozers got them.”
This is the only Lady's Slipper with basal leaves only. The flowers are irregular in shape, and of course, they are pink. Blooms first appear in mid spring and continue into late spring. The 'moccasin' and 'slipper' in the common names reflect the Indian and white settlers view of what the flower looked like. The flower is cleft in the middle, and has the unmistakable slipper, or moccasin shape to it.
This cleft is actually an entrance for insects, which acts as a one-way door. Inside the flower, small hairs "direct" the insect (usually bees) where to go, and some never do make it out. If they do manage to follow the hairs properly they are sent through a very narrow passage, which forces the bee or whatever bug it may be to be coated in pollen.
Though sometimes hard to find, the Pink Lady’s Slipper is available from specialty mail-order sources or through authorized native plant rescue programs for use in the landscape. Here in Georgia where the plant is protected, we need a special permit to rescue the plants.
A good deal of debate has arisen around methods for digging this plant in rescue situations. According to our own David Mellard, PhD, “When rescuing C. acaule, the one thing you should do is leave your shovel at home. Like the spokes of a wheel, the roots of C. acaule grow horizontally in the decaying pine duff microclimate.” As for creating the proper environment to receive these plants, “probably the most important thing is plant the roots horizontally on the surface, covering with compost, and most importantly watering them with vinegar (2 oz/gallon) throughout the growing season.”
The Pink Lady’s Slipper can be found in the foothills and mountains of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, adjacent Tennessee, and North Carolina, north and west to Alberta. Though protected in many states, it appears secure in most of Canada. In 1991, the state of New Hampshire adopted this stunning orchid as the state wildflower, where it is quite populous. Though it is not protected there, a persistent myth that it is has most likely contributed to the security of the population.
I hope that something in one or more of these descriptions has sparked your interest to learn more about the acid loving plants of Georgia. Though none of these plants will be appropriate for all regions of North America, plant communities do not recognize the boundaries established by governments. And a plant native to the Southeastern portion of the United States is likely to be a better choice for your garden, and the environment, than an exotic import that may escape cultivation and become a pest. Encourage nurserymen to take a new look at some old friends.

Black and white photographs courtesy of Maria Cordell c 2004 and Theresa Schrum (Pink Lady Slipper).

Portions of the article were published in The Blazing Star, Summer 2004, Volume 5, Issue 3. This is the newsletter of the North American Native Plant Society.