Season’s Change

Daucus carota, from a grocery store carrot planted this spring, blooms alongside perennial Geranium in our garden.

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We feel the season’s change every time we open the kitchen door and step outside.

The air is soft and thick, perfumed by millions of tiny white flowers opening now on the uncounted Ligustrum shrubs surrounding the garden.  It smells of summer, stirring some nearly forgotten restlessness echoing across the years, from summers long, long passed.

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The sweetness permeates the warm breeze, full of promises and  vague intrigue.  In the early morning, the breeze holds an invitation and a dare, drawing us outside to ‘seize the day.’

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By noon it grows oppressive, rank with humidity and pulsing with summer’s heat.

The air buzzes now.  Bees mind their business, methodically working flower to flower, unless startled into a quick evasive maneuver out of range.

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Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed, blooms along Jones Mill Pond on the Colonial Parkway.

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But mayflies and mosquitoes buzz in as close as they dare, waiting for a flash of skin to light and drink, waiting for a moment of distraction to attack.

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Birds call out to one another, chirping at the cat napping on the deck, warning intruders off from nests.  Ever vigilant, ever hungry; the swoosh of restless wings cuts the thick air, in pursuit of another bite of summer’s bounty.

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Our garden explodes in growth.  Warm, humid nights coax even the most reluctant perennials to pulse into life.

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Verbena bonariensis stretches towards the sky even as it spreads across the garden.

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Responding to the season’s magic, stalks rise and leaves open to the cadence of  croaked and clicked incantations wafting on the evening air.

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The air is thick with leaves, trees now fully clothed make living green walls and ceilings around our garden’s rooms.  Bamboo arises, thick and green, sealing us in from the wildness of the ravine.

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Flowers appear in every shade of purple and gold, white and ruby.  They sparkle through the sea of green, enchanting in their transience.

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Wildflowers nod along the bank of Jones Millpond on the Colonial Parkway in York County.

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Spring’s flowers have come and gone.  The last few foxglove, beaten down by the rain, limply bloom at the ends of stalks swelling with seed.

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A few Iris pods swell, too; overlooked in my pruning.  Daffodil leaves have grown limp, yellowing and fading to make room for something new to arise.

Summer’s flowers replace them, filled with nectar and bursting with pollen, a magnet for every sort and  size of pollinator.

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We feel the season’s change every time we step outside the haven of air conditioning and window screens.  When we dare leave the shade in the afternoon, a fierce sun burns down upon us.

We want the smaller shades offered by hats and sleeves; the relative safety of socks and gloves and thick jeans protecting us from ‘the bities’.

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Colonial Parkway, near Jamestown, where wild prickly-pear cactus bloom in summer.

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As the days grow longer and the nights warmer, we feel ourselves drawn to the top of the year.

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Mid-summer beckons, only days away.  Nature calls us to come out and join our own human voices in the buzzing, clicking, croaking, swooshing, chorus of life.

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This is the time of sweetness and abundance, full of promises, eternally youthful and energetic.

Summer at last.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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A Gardener’s Journey

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Becoming a gardener is a journey.

It is a journey of discovery; a journey of evolution.

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To begin with a bit of dirt, a splash of water and a tiny seed or leaf or stem or root, and coax that living tissue into a beautiful and productive plant, is a journey, too.

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A gardener begins with a question:  “How does that grow?”

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And every answer she discovers leads to more and more interesting questions.

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The journey lasts a lifetime.

From the first seed sown in a bit of mud as a child, to the creation and care for garden upon garden upon garden throughout one’s life; the gardener herself ripens as the journey continues.

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There are salads to grow and herbs for cooking.

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We plant flowers, fruit, mosses, ferns, roses, grasses and graceful trees to flower in early springtime.

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There are long and twisty names to learn; and knotty, weedy problems to resolve.

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We learn to shape a plant with skillful pruning.

We have soils to amend, mulch to spread, oils to spray and compost to make.

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There is always more to learn, and there are always tasks waiting for us to accomplish, along the way.

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Some gardeners choose to quietly tend their own gardens.  They make their journey largely on their knees, coaxing the earth into fertility and abundance.

They lay their daily table with the fruits of their devotion.

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Some gardeners create something new.  They play matchmaker in their beds and breed new and better and different and healthier plants to introduce to the horticultural world.

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Some design and some construct.  Others experiment with new ways to adapt to a changing environment, and find ways to increase the land’s productivity.

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Some raise quantities of plants to supply to others, and create beautiful nurseries to inspire their brother and sister gardeners.

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And some gardeners share what they have learned with others.  They pass along plants,  offer advice, and help other gardeners find answers to their questions.

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It is all a part of the journey:  Asking, learning, propagating, teaching, sowing, amending, pruning and investing one’s energy in making something grow; making a place more beautiful.

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A gardener works to heal the planet.  We create beautiful spaces for people and safe spaces for wildlife.

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We nurture plants to cleanse the air and perfume it.  We plant to build and hold the soil and purify the water.

We feed our families and ourselves.

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If you find yourself somewhere along this path, then you are on a journey of happiness and good fortune.

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Root something; share something. 

And feel your own roots and branches expanding ever further into this beautiful world we share.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Sunday Dinner: On the Path

Ocracoke Lighthouse April 2007

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“There are no wrong turnings.
Only paths we had not known
we were meant to walk.”
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Guy Gavriel Kay
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Route 101 near Depot Bay, Oregon 2010.

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“It is not we who seek the Way,
but the Way which seeks us.
That is why you are faithful to it,
even while you stand waiting,
so long as you are prepared,
and act the moment you are confronted
by its demands.”
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Dag Hammarskjöld
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Powhatan Creek, Virginia January 2018

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“You never know what’s around the corner.
It could be everything. Or it could be nothing.
You keep putting one foot in front of the other,
and then one day you look back
and you’ve climbed a mountain.”
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Tom Hiddleston
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Yaquina Head Lighthouse Oregon 2010

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“If you do not change direction,
you may end up where you are heading”
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Gautama Buddha
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The Colonial Parkway, Virginia 2014

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“What you’re missing
is that the path itself changes you.”
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Julien Smith
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Near the York River, November 2014

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“…the universe…sets out little signposts for us
along the way, to confirm
that we’re on the right path.” 
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Michelle Maisto
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Cape Foulweather Lookout, Oregon October 2017

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Photos by Woodland Gnome

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Along the Chickahominy River August 2016

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“End?
No, the journey doesn’t end here.
Death is just another path.
One that we all must take.”
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J.R.R. Tolkien
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Native Trees: American Sycamore

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North America’s trees were considered one of its greatest treasures both by European colonists like John Bartram and his son William, and by European gardeners eagerly awaiting shipments of seed from ‘the colonies.’

Our many varieties of conifers and hardwood are as beautiful as they are useful.  North American trees were planted extensively in European gardens soon after Jamestown was settled.  The early colonists were always on the lookout for ‘useful plants’ to send back home.

These same prized trees still grow wild here in Virginia, today.

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The American Sycamore grows on the bank of Jones Millpond in York County, Virginia

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One of my favorite native American trees is the American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis.   Also called ‘bottonwood tree,’ named for its round fruits which persist through winter, the sycamore may also be called an American plane tree.

I particularly like this tree’s mottled, light colored bark, and its beautiful branching form.

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The sycamore prefers moist soil and can often be found in the wild in lowlands and near bodies of water. Yet it will grow in many different environments in Zones 4-9.  It’s native range extends from Florida, north into Canada, and westwards into Texas and Oklahoma.  It is also considered a native tree in Oregon.

The sycamore will quickly grow into a massive shade tree, with a thick trunk (to more than 6 feet in diameter), a broad canopy, and a mature height of over 130 feet.  Its extensive roots can damage nearby walls or sidewalks, yet it is a common street tree in cities.  A sycamore can handle the heat and polluted air of urban areas, where it is enjoyed for its beauty and its shade.  Its dense canopy helps filter the air.

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This Sycamore grows on the banks of the James River near Jamestown Island.

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I enjoy visiting this lovely sycamore growing on the bank of Jones Millpond, alone the Colonial Parkway between Williamsburg and Yorktown throughout the year.  It is pleasing in all seasons.

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There are several notable sycamore trees in our area.  Their interesting branches and bright bark make them easy to recognize.  In winter, the seedpods hanging from their branches playfully sway in the wind.

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A sycamore tree’s wood is useful for making things, but it isn’t a preferred wood for furniture making.  It doesn’t produce edible nuts or leaves.

It is valued more as a beautiful landscape tree and for the shade it gives in summer.

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The distinctive leaves and bark help identify this tree as a Platanus

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The sycamore ranks high among my favorite native American trees.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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Even when pruned hard in a style called pollarding, the Platanus is easily recognized by its light colored bark. This tree grows in Colonial Williamsburg.

Solstice Sunset

Powhatan Creek at sunset on Winter Solstice.

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Today we celebrate the Winter Solstice, that time of year when days are short and nights are long.  Our day in Williamsburg, Virginia, began at 7:17 AM with sunrise, and ended at 4:53 PM as the sun set.  Our day was nine hours and 36 minutes long today.

But, as I look at a table of sunrise and sunset times, I notice that yesterday, and everyday since last Sunday, has been exactly the same length.  The difference is that the sunrise was a minute or two later, but so was the sunset!  In fact,  our earliest sunset of the year, at 4:49 PM, occurred on December 2 this year.  The sun has been setting a minute or two later each day since the 12th, when sunset occurred at 4:50 PM.

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Sunrise continues to come a bit later each day.  Today the sun rose at 7:17, but by Saturday it will rise at 7:18, and on Christmas Monday it  won’t appear until 7:19 AM.  The sun will continue rising a bit later each morning until December 31,  when it rises at 7:21 AM.

It isn’t until the 13th of January that the rising sun reverses itself and comes up a minute earlier, at 7:20.  By January 13, the day will have grown to nine hours and 50 minutes, as the sun is setting at 4:50 once again.

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Each day between now, and December 27, will continue on at exactly nine hours and 36 minutes.  That means that we will have a run of 11 days of ‘the shortest day of the year,’ of only nine hours and 36 minutes of daylight.  As the sun sets a minute later, so the sun also rises a minute later, in perfect choreography, until December 28, when the day grows by a minute to nine hours and 37 minutes at last.  On New Year’s Day, our daylight will have grown to nine hours and 38 minutes, with sunrise at seven 21 and sunset at 4:59.

Perhaps this very long run of short days and worsening weather is why we need the brightness of the  holidays to cheer our souls and help us through this extended period of darkness.  I feel grateful for every light display I see along the way, as darkness gathers in late afternoon, and the wind bites with cold.

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I relish these early evenings, too.  Watching the sky turn bright with sunset color, and seeing our beautiful trees silhouetted against the deepening sky is a breathtakingly beautiful way to end our day.  Except it isn’t the end of the day, is it?

The early sunset may send us indoors, but we enjoy the long, quiet winter evenings together.  We may hear the owls calling to one another in the ravine.  I make tea, fix snacks, and work on holiday chores.   I paint and sculpt, read and crochet.  It may be long past midnight before I give up the day for sleep, knowing that morning will dawn quite late on the morrow!

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We are in the darkest part of the year: Yule.  And that has been amplified this week with the new moon on Monday.  Settling comfortably into darkness, we gather with friends and loved ones, forming our intentions and making our wishes in anticipation of the year’s turning and return of longer days of sunlight.

Some light a Yule log and keep it burning until the days grow longer once again.  Some light candles to warm winter’s long nights, or light lamps.  Here, we string Christmas lights and enjoy their nightly glow.  We keep them up and burning deep into January, when we can feel the year has turned and days have grown longer once again.

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Tonight, we went out to watch the Solstice sunset.  We left soon after four, camera in hand, and enjoyed a beautiful late afternoon drive on the Colonial Parkway.  We were driving west towards Jamestown, and the sun was brightly blazing even as it dipped towards the horizon before us.  I had to wear my shades and still shield my eyes against its intensity.

We may have made a detour…. there may have been mint ice cream involved…

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Suffice it to say, we were running a bit close when we headed back to the Parkway to photograph the setting sun.  Seconds count, and that fiery orb had already dipped below the James River before we were in position.  But the sky was still ablaze, and the new moon hanging in a pristine sky, growing brighter with each passing minute.

Winter Solstice is one of my favorite days of the year.  We have celebrated this day since my own little one was tiny, with special food, and gifts, and music and merry-making.  It marks the passage from weeks of preparation to conscious celebration of the waning of one year and fresh beginnings of the next.  I envy friends born on this special day, and always keep it as the beginning of our Christmas celebrations.

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My mind turns to The Holly King of legend, who shines brightly in our barren, wintery woods.  Aglow in bright red berries, hollies shine through mist and snow and gloomy winter days.  Winter is their prime time, when the oaks and other hardwoods have gone dormant and dropped their leaves.

I wish you a happy Solstice and a Merry Yule.

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These are special days, and I hope you keep them well.  With love shining brightly in our hearts, we journey through these last days of 2017 and find our way into a new solar year.  May peace and happiness journey with you, and may 2018 offer you fresh possibilities, new opportunities and abundant joy.

Woodland Gnome 2017

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The James River

WPC: Peek

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“The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Curiosity has its own reason for existence.

One cannot help but be in awe

when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity,

of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.

It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend

a little of this mystery each day.”

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Albert Einstein

 

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Sunset this afternoon found us driving together on the Colonial Parkway, admiring the autumn colors finally intensifying in the surrounding forest.    Though the hardwoods are still mostly green, there are glorious highlights of gold and scarlet around the edges, and they were nowhere more beautiful than bathed in the golden rays of late afternoon.

We stopped at Jones Mill Pond to admire them.  The water was glassy.  There wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze to mar the peaceful mirror of the water’s surface.   We listened to the quiet as we drank in the colors of the changing season and enjoyed the ever changing light.

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“The most beautiful experience we can have

is the mysterious.

It is the fundamental emotion

that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

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Albert Einstein

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Just as I was headed back to the car, I noticed something else even more mysterious than evening gathering over the waters of the pond.

What are they?  And how long have they been lurking here?

Please take a ‘peek’ and see what you think….

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“No, I would not want to live in a world without dragons,
as I would not want to live in a world without magic,
for that is a world without mystery,
and that is a world without faith.”

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R.A. Salvatore
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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
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“This week, share a peek of something —
a photo that reveals just enough of your subject to get us interested.
A tantalizing detail. An unusual perspective.
Compel us to click through to your post to find out more!”

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For the Daily Post’s

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Peek

 

 

Native Beauty

Virginia thistle growing with goldenrod and beautyberry on Jamestown Island, Virginia.

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We headed out onto the Colonial Parkway yesterday afternoon, to see what we could see.   We were watching for signs of the changing season, and of course watching the sky for signs of the approaching storm.  Hurricane Jose was swirling out in the Atlantic, well away to our southeast.   Even so, the outer bands of this enormous storm were already creeping across our sky.

Once we reached  the ‘roads less traveled’ on Jamestown Island, we were delighted to see bright purple beautyberry, Callicarpa dichotoma , bright golden Solidago, yellowing marsh grasses and occasional reddening leaves.

The outer tips of branches on our native dogwoods, and some maples, have begun to change into their autumn finery.

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Yellowed Poplar leaves have been falling for weeks now.  A few inky purple berries still cling to magenta stems on the many native Aralia spinosa trees lining the road.  Their leaves will soon turn golden, too.

We stopped in a few of the pull-offs on the island to read the signs yet again, and for me to hop out to take a few photos.   As we approached one pull-off in particular, along the longer Island Drive, I was intrigued by the bright wildflowers and purple berries right beside the road.

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A pull off on the longer Island Drive on Jamestown Island.

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In addition to the vivid beautyberries  which lined the whole of the road in abundance, and the stands of goldenrod, there was something uniquely different.  This had flowers like a thistle, but on a radically different tall and lanky plant that I’d never noticed before.  What was it?

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The wild thistles we’d seen on Ocracoke Island, many miles to the south, were much stockier and shorter plants with larger blossoms.  I quickly ruled out perennial Cardoon, and every other ‘thistle-like’ plant I’ve known.

We have a passing acquaintance with most all of the native trees, ferns and perennials in the area.  And this one was new to us.

Perhaps we’d never visited the island at precisely this point in the seasonal progression before…  And so I took lots of photos, and determined to investigate the plant later, at home.

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As it turns out, the plant we found is a native of the Southeastern United States, called Cirsium virginianum, or Virginia thistle.   A biennial, it prefers moister, sandier soils along the coast.  It has a dangerously thorny stem, long thin leaves, and had grown a bit taller than I stand.  In some areas along the Gulf coast, it is considered a ‘noxious weed.’  But in Virginia, it is still relatively rare, at least in my experience.

I enjoyed the natural combination of its lavender blossoms growing against a back drop of purple beautyberry, with a skirt of bright goldenrod.    For this forested, marshy island especially, this was a rare colorful sight along the road.

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The beautyberry is rampant now in our garden, too.  In fact, so many volunteers have appeared that we often must cut them back throughout the season.  This is one of the plants I cut back hard in early spring to somewhat control its size.

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One of the larger beautyberry shrubs in our garden, which we cut hard every spring, reaches up for the lower limbs of the dogwood tree which shelters it.

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Solidago has self-seeded in sunny parts of our garden, too.   And we have a single berry-topped Aralia proudly presiding over it all.  A neighbor tipped me off to how badly the Aralia can sucker, and so I ruthlessly cut out the many small clones trying to grow up around the main stem this spring.  I suppose that will be an ongoing part of our garden routine from now on.

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Our Aralia, in its first season of bloom, surrounded by native Phytolacca americana, or pokeweed, another rampant native plant.  The birds love these berry laden natives.

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There are definite advantages and disadvantages to inviting native plants into one’s garden.  It is something to consider, especially for aging gardeners who want neat, easy maintenance landscapes around their home.

Native plants self-seed easily, and often grow and spread with enthusiasm.  It can take great effort to control them, especially if they establish on good garden soil, in areas tended and irrigated to keep them productive.  We are nearly overrun with the stunningly beautiful Rudbeckia hirta and Rudbeckia laciniata.  They both quickly claim far more real-estate than a gardener plans to give them.

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Three natives growing together in our front garden: black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta; mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum; and obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana.  A Master Gardener friend gave us a large clump of obedient plant this spring. I divided it into several smaller clumps, and planted them in different areas to see where they perform best.  I am thrilled that this beautiful plant survived our summer drought and is blooming this first year.

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The R. laciniata wasn’t even invited; a gardening friend gave me a clump of white Monarda passed on from her friend, and some R. laciniata roots just happened to be in the clump.  But these gargantuan, flower covered plants are now filling my former ‘butterfly garden.’  I must tend to their removal this fall, when the weather cools, and weed them out ruthlessly next spring.

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Rudbeckia laciniata now fills what once was our butterfly garden, filled with various flowering shrubs and perennials.  I intend to weed most of this out over the next month, sharing it with a friend who wants it!

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The Rudbeckia hirta I shared lavishly with all gardening friends who would accept a few this spring.  I dug up clump after clump, and still have the largest, lushest stand of it, ever.  There are worse things than a sea of golden flowers come August and September, I suppose.

The rich drifts of perennials one admires in public gardens are attainable with natives, without stretching the budget, I’ve learned.

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This is the season for native plant sales, sponsored by local native plant societies.  This is a good service for communities and enables more of us to grow natives, if we choose.  While I support the effort in theory, I must admit that in general I prefer more curated, controllable cultivars.

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Self-sown Solidago in our garden, a week and a half ago, nearly ready to bloom. It has just begun to show color, and will be fully in bloom by next weekend.  This huge perennial attracts many pollinators and provides late season nectar for our bees.  But, large natives often shade and crowd out the more desirable cultivars of perennials one has purchased for the garden….

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Yes, I acknowledge the many and varied benefits native plants offer wildlife, and we absolutely grow our share of natives here.

That said, a word to the wise:  carefully research and observe any native plant you want to grow, before you invite it home to your garden.  Let  the natives you grow remain natural beauties, and may they never cross that line to become noxious weeds, overtaking your garden.

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Obedient plant with black-eyed Susans

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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A waterway through the marsh on Jamestown Island

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“In the rain forest, no niche lies unused. No emptiness goes unfilled.  No gasp of sunlight goes untrapped.  In a million vest pockets, a million life-forms quietly tick.  No other place on earth feels so lush.  Sometimes we picture it as an echo of the original Garden of Eden—a realm ancient, serene, and fertile, where pythons slither and jaguars lope.  But it is mainly a world of cunning and savage trees.  Truant plants will not survive.  The meek inherit nothing. Light is a thick yellow vitamin they would kill for, and they do.  One of the first truths one learns in the rain forest is that there is nothing fainthearted or wimpy about plants.”
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Diane Ackerman

 

 

Sunday Dinner: Secrets of the River

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“Have you also learned that secret from the river;
that there is no such thing as time?”
That the river is everywhere at the same time,
at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall,
at the ferry, at the current,
in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere
and that the present only exists for it,
not the shadow of the past
nor the shadow of the future.”
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Hermann Hesse
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“We must begin thinking like a river
if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life
for future generations.”
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David Brower
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“Ask the river, where it comes from?
You will get no answer.
Ask the river, where is it going?
You will get no answer,
because the river lives
inside this very moment;
neither in the past nor in the future,
in this very moment only!”
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Mehmet Murat ildan
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Black’s Point, Jamestown Island in the James River

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
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WPC: Elemental

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For this week’s challenge, explore the classical elements of earth, air, water, and fire.
How do you capture something invisible like air, or the movement of water? Or, more personally, is there a place you go to feel connected to the earth?
Take a moment to explore these elements, in or out of balance, together or individually, as you pick up your camera this week.”
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The ancients teach us that originally there was only one energy, one creative force.  It was, even before the light.

And from its desire to know itself, everything else was created. Every thing we know was explosively generated from the one.

This original energy still animates everything, every element that is; even our own knowingness. 

The continual joy of creation comes from the interplay of all of the elements; every bit of fire and earth, water and air.   These essential elements structure even our own imagination.

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Try to take away even one of the elements, and what is left? Some balance will be restored ….

Our life depends on the interplay of fire, water, air, minerals, and the unique animation we call spirit.

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“I’ve always known, on a purely intellectual level,
that our separateness and isolation are an illusion.
We’re all made of the same thing—
the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars.
I’d just never felt that knowledge in my bones until that moment,
there, with you, and it’s because of you.”
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Blake Crouch
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Every particle and spark is important; a part of the whole. Every one of us is important:  a part of the whole; elemental.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2017
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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Elemental

Native Virginia Trees

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Early spring, as the buds swell and glow red or orange or softest green around the crown of every tree on the horizon; directs our attention back towards our majestic, elegant hardwood trees which fill the landscape here in coastal Virginia.  We’ve largely ignored them since autumn, when their bright leaves blew away in November’s storms. 

The many native trees discovered by our early colonists still grow wild here.  They form the backdrop to our everyday lives.  Some of us love them and choose to live in forested communities.  Others fear them.  Perhaps for good reason, after seeing these gentle giants toppled by the storms which blow through our area several times a year. 

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Yet, the great North American trees define our landscape and our lifestyle.  They shade us and offer relief from our summer heat and humidity.  Their flowers announce spring and make early summer sweetly fragrant. 

The ready supply of good strong trees for lumber allowed early settlers to build homes and churches and businesses in the wilderness.  Although it is unusual to find a fully grown, mature hardwood tree anymore, we still can find them in parks and on preserved estates.

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Cypress Trees grow large here along the Colonial Parkway at the mouth of Powhatan Creek.

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I love trees.  And I love to plant trees. I count and visit the Dogwoods, Oaks, Redbuds, Crepe Myrtles and Poplars on our property pretty regularly to monitor their growth.  In fact, I spent an hour today with a shipment of bare root trees we just received from the Arbor Day Foundation.

I get angry when neighbors cut healthy trees, changing the landscape for our entire community.  And I really hate to see stands of trees cut for new development ,  mourning the ever increasing loss of the naturally forested acres left in our area. 

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We often fail to consider how much oxygen each tree produces each year, or how many pollutants each can filter from the air we breathe.  Trees absorb greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide in their respiration, locking that carbon into their woody flesh. 

They help moderate the temperature through all of our seasons, and fertilize the Earth and build new soil with their fallen leaves.  Each tree supports and houses countless animals, feeding and sheltering birds, small insects, butterflies and their larvae, and  small mammals.

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Native Redbud, Cercis canadensis, blooms in April.

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Since trees are on my mind today, I am republishing an essay I wrote in August, 2013, about how prized our American trees became to the Europeans who financed and supported colonization in North America.  I hope you find some useful bit here you didn’t know before.   And I also hope that perhaps this essay invites you to pay a bit more attention to the trees in your landscape and your life.

-Woodland Gnome

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View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

View towards Jamestown Island from the Colonial Parkway.

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Did you know there was a time, not too long ago, when the most prized plants growing on regal British estates were trees imported from, “The Colonies”?  I had no idea how much 17th and 18th Century British gardeners coveted North American plants- particularly our trees.

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American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

American Sycamore growing along the Colonial Parkway on the bank of the James River.

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Isn’t it interesting how things are forgotten over the years, and we assume that how things are in our own experience is how things have always been?

I grew up on the East coast of North America, making annual trips to view the colorful forests cloaking the Blue Ridge Mountains each autumn.  I’ve always had brilliant autumn foliage to enjoy in my own yard, and lining the streets of whatever town I happened to visit.

We in Virginia accept these things as part of the normal progression of the seasons.  We savor them, but don’t take notice of what a rare treat we enjoy.

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An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown.

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It was the book, Brother Gardeners:  Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession, by Andrea Wulf, which opened my eyes and my mind to the treasures growing here, as weeds in the woods.

Prior to the 17th century, European, and specifically British gardens, had a limited palette of plants.  The formal geometric schemes of lawn, hedge, topiary evergreen shrubs, roses, and very few summer flowers were the norm.  Green and brown were the main colors found in the garden for most of the year.  Hardscape paths, stairs, fountains, arbors, and structures were the relief from all of this green lawn and green hedge.  Gardeners overcame and reshaped nature when creating a garden.

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Dogwood tree in early November

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The notion of working with nature was born in the colonies, and exported back to England in some measure toward the second half of the 18th century.

As European ships sailed abroad to explore and claim the world, they took as treasure not only gold and silver, but also botanical treasures from all of the lands explored.

Very little of the plant material collected actually made it back alive to a gardener in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, or the Netherlands.  When a voyage lasts many months, things happen.  Things like hungry mice and storms; gnawing insects, pirates, salt spray; and unmitigated heat and cold on the deck of a sailing ship.

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But whatever seeds, bulbs, cuttings, roots, and even live plants did miraculously make it home and into the hands of a skilled gardener, were loving tended and coaxed into growing in specially built hot houses and garden plots.

Plants were grown out for seed, sold, traded, and propagated in great botanical gardens across Europe.  Botanists befriended ships’ captains and crews in hopes of bribing them to bring home new specimens.  And, as colonies were established, relationships sprang up between the colonists and avid collectors “back home” in Europe.

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Red Cedar growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana growing in Colonial Williamsburg.

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The fledgling scientists of the Enlightenment realized that every new species of plant contains tremendous gifts.  Aside from their beauty and use in an ornamental garden, plants contain useful chemical compounds to heal, create new products, nourish, and enlighten.  Some of this research continues today in the Amazon Rain Forest of Brazil and other inaccessible and remote corners of the world

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Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.

Catalpa, or Monkey Cigar tree, on the Palace Green at Colonial Williamsburg. The lawn is lined with Catalpa trees of various ages, and they are absolutely stunning when in bloom.  Enlarge the photo and you’ll see the long seed pods growing in early August.

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The colonial era was an exciting time for discovering countless new species of plants. The gardens of Great Britain and Europe reflected the explosion of diversity by welcoming previously unknown flowers, trees, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables into their evolving and increasingly naturalistic garden schemes.

Remember, the great forests of Britain were decimated long before this era.  When Maple, Tulip Poplar, Pine, Sycamore, Cedar, Dogwood, Sassafras, Magnolia and other colorful tress and shrubs from America grew in the first garden plots of importers, they were a novelty.  The aristocracy quickly fell in love with these new plants, and clamored for a seed or a cutting to grow on their home estates.

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Oak and pine grow in abundance on Jamestown Island.

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Benjamin Franklin helped build the relationships that enabled this trade between his amateur botanist friends in the American colonies and his contacts in Britain.  The story told in Andrea Wulf’s book unfolds with the drama and personality of a good novel, and I recommend it to every like minded gardener, no matter which side of the pond you call your present home.

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Native holly

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For the purposes of this post, I will  mention a few of the trees growing wild right here around Jamestown, which were collected in the Colonial era and sent back to England.  These trees, common to us, opened up a whole new way to design and enjoy gardens for those still in Europe.  They were grown for their beautiful form, fall color, interesting bark, and some for their flowers.

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An old oak tree’s exposed roots. This tree holds the bank of the James River along the Parkway.

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Eventually, gardening became a passionate pursuit not only of the aristocracy, but for many Britons.  As we admire their beautifully tended gardens of trees, shrubs, and flowers today, so they admired the wild and beautiful plants we sent back to them from, “The Colonies”.

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Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

Magnolia grandiflora growing along the Colonial Parkway near Jametown, VA.

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Here is a partial list of trees and shrubs introduced to Britain from the American colonies:

Acer saccharum, Sugar Maple, 1725

Aesculus pavia, Red Buckeye, 1711

Colorful fall leaves were almost unknown in Britain before American species of trees were introduced n the 17th and 18th centuries.

Betula nigra, River Birch, 1736

Callicarpa americana, Beauty Berry, 1724

Catalpa bignonioides, Southern Catalpa, 1722

Chamaecyparis thyoides, White Cedar, 1736

Chionanthus virginicus, Fringe Tree, 1736

Cornus florida, Flowering Dogwood, 1722

Diospyros virginiana, Persimmon, 1629

Euonymus atropurpurea, Burning Bush, 1744-6

Fraxinus americana, White Ash, 1724

Hydrangea arborescens, Wild Hydrangea, 1736

Juglans nigra, Black Walnut, 1629

Juniperus virginiana, Red Cedar, 1664

Kalmia latifolia, Mountain Laurel, 1734

Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip Poplar, 1638

Magnolia grandiflora, Southern Magnolia, 1734

Dogwood, our Virginia state tree, blooms in April.

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet Bay, 1688

Pinus strobus, White Pine, 1705

Platanus occidentalis, American Sycamore, 1638

Sassafras albidum, Sassafrass, 1630

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Dogwood, Cornus florida

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2017

The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession

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