Butterfly’s Choice: Aralia spinosa

Aralia blooms mingle with wild Clematis along the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown.

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We stopped to admire the Clematis.  It was only once we pulled in to the parking area that we noticed the butterfly.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Aralia spinosa.

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And what a beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail he was, contentedly feeding on the Aralia flowers.

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Aralia spinosa is one of those wild trees we notice growing along the roadsides that appear, to our eye, rather weedy.  They grow tall and thin, eventually forming dense thickets, and sport wicked sharp thorns along their trunks and branches.  A native in our area, most sane folk would never allow them to take root in their garden.

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But their thorns can be overlooked in late summer, when the Aralia produce huge, thick clusters of tiny flowers.  The flowers bloom, and after the blossoms drop dense purple berries take their place.  Butterflies love their flowers and all sorts of song birds love the berries.  These small trees produce abundant food for wild life each summer, before their leaves drop in late autumn.

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“The Devil’s Walking Stick”, Aralia spinosa, with berries forming.  This stand grows along the Colonial Parkway near Jamestown Island.

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We got to know Aralia when our neighbor’s fell over under its own weight one year, and leaned its huge flowery head into our back garden.  Perhaps it was merely reaching for the sun; I was intrigued.  Within another few years, we had one sprouting in the upper garden.  I decided to give it a chance and let it grow.

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Aralia spinosa, a native volunteer in our garden, looks rather tropical as its first leaves emerge each spring.

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It lost its top in a storm in early spring this year, and just as I hoped, more branches and flower heads sprouted lower along its trunk.  Where last year we had one large flower cluster at the very top, this year we have several.  We often find our Tiger Swallowtails winging their way up to enjoy its nectar.

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But here along the Colonial Parkway on Sunday afternoon, I was still surprised to see the swallowtail feasting only on the Aralia, and completely ignoring the Clematis.  To my eye, the Clematis flowers are far more appealing.  They fairly shimmer in the sunlight, and they are a bit larger and perhaps easier to access.

But butterflies perceive the garden differently than do we.  Something about the Aralia intrigued this butterfly and kept it satisfied.  The Aralia is a Virginia native, and this particular Clematis is a naturalized variety from Asia.

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Clematis terniflora was introduced from Asia, and has naturalized in many parts of the country, including here along the Colonial Parkway.  Its fragrance is strong and sweet.  This variety is on the invasive list in several states.

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As we garden, we have to come to terms with our purposes.   What do we intend to accomplish by planting and tending our garden?  Who is the consumer?  Who is to be pleased by it?  Are we growing food for ourselves, enjoying the latest brightest flowers, creating a peaceful green sanctuary of shrubs and trees, or are we gardening to nurture wildlife?

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We can find compromises, but we can’t do it all.

What appeals to wildlife may not be our idea of horticultural beauty.  Maintaining a garden that is immaculately beautiful won’t serve the needs of the butterflies, birds, toads and other creatures we may hope to attract.

Wildlife will impact any food crop we cultivate, for good or ill, and we need to come to terms early on with whether we will use the many chemicals that promise garden perfection.

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Native Asclepias incarnata grows wild in a marsh on Jamestown Island.

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It helps to know what wildlife need and prefer if we want to contribute to conservation efforts to protect them.  But that doesn’t mean we want all of those plants surrounding our home.  Many have a short season of beauty, or are rampant, or simply prefer to grow in wide open spaces.

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Native Pickerel weed, Pontederia cordata, may be used in water features in our garden.  Here is grows in one of the marshes on Jamestown Island, along with Phragmites.

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Maybe our homeowners association has strict standards for how our yards must be maintained.  Growing vigorous native plants may be discouraged, in favor of more traditional landscaping.

There is a tension, sometimes, in how we resolve these apparent conflicts of purpose, intent and personal needs.  But there can be creative, and beautiful compromises possible, when we stop and observe closely enough, and plan with clarity and wisdom.

Our love of the wild and beautiful world around us helps us discover those compromises, and find joy in the result.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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A wildlife friendly border, with mixed natives and exotics, in our upper garden.

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WPC: Twist

Chocolate Vine, Akebia quinata, twisting and spiraling as it climbs.

Chocolate Vine, Akebia quinata, twisting and spiraling as it climbs.

Here Chocolate Vine, Akebia quinata, twists around itself and the arbor it shares with a climbing rose and the Clematis.

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“Twist” is its method of climbing up to the sun, staking out its own bit of real estate on the shared skeleton of the arbor as it also scampers across the body of the rose.

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Spiraling ever upwards from Earth to sky, its vines living sculpture; it perfectly expresses the exuberance of our garden in spring.

Two Clematis vines share the arbor with the rose and Chocolate Vine.

Clematis vines share the arbor with the rose and Chocolate Vine.

Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Twist

Like A Dusting of Snow: Sweet Autumn Clematis

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Sweet Autumn Clematis is in full bloom now along the Colonial Parkway between Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia.

It’s late August in Virginia, but along the banks of the James River it looks like there has been an early snow, dusting the trees and shrubs with white frosting.  The Sweet Autumn Clematis is in its glory.

The smooth oval leaves on the Sweet Autumn Clematis vine indicate it is the Japanese Clematis

The smooth oval leaves on the Sweet Autumn Clematis vine indicate it is the Japanese Clematis terniflora, not the native species.

There are actually two different Autumn Clematis species, which look identical from a distance.  The native Clematis virginiana, also called “Virgin’s Bower”, or less romantically, “The Devil’s Darning Needles”; grows from 10’-20’, blooms from late July into September, and has leaves with toothed edges.  It grows in USDA Zones 4-8, and was widely used by Native Americans medicinally and as a hallucinogen.

004Clematis terniflora was imported to the United States from Japan.  Although the flowers of these two vines are nearly identical, Clematis terniflora has smooth, oval leaves and can grow to 30’.  The “sweet” in the common name, “Sweet Autumn Clematis” is a reference to the delicious sweet aroma of this beautiful vine.  It is hardy in zones 4-9.  Although it is naturalized mostly from Texas eastwards in the United States, and up into Quebec, Canada, it has also naturalized in much of California.  The foliage of this vine is more refined looking than the foliage of the native Clematis virginiana.

Clematis covered red cedar trees line the fence of the Gospel Spreading Church Farm along the Colonial Parkway.

Clematis covered red cedar trees line the fence of the Gospel Spreading Church Farm along the Colonial Parkway.

Both of these vines are popular with all nectar loving insects and with hummingbirds when in flower, and with seed loving birds once the seeds form.   The seed is spread far and wide by the birds, and so both of these tough, vigorous vines are now found growing in the wild across most of the Eastern United States.  Sweet Autumn Clematis is also a favorite to grow in the garden.  It comes into bloom at the end of the season when many annuals are tired and many perennials are finishing their annual display.  Some states list Sweet Autumn Clematis as an invasive species, although that is harsh treatment for such a beautiful flowering vine.014

Both species of Autumn Clematis tolerate a wide range of soils.  They can thrive whether the summer is wet or dry, although our prolific display this August must be due to the wet weather we’ve had all summer.  013

Both flower on new wood.  They can be cut back hard, to within a foot or so of the ground in early spring, and still put on enough growth for a beautiful autumn show.

These clematis vines are lovely growing on a fence, an arbor, as a groundcover, or over shrubs.  Caution should be taken when they begin to scamper over nearby trees and shrubs in the garden so they aren’t allowed to “shade out” and weaken their neighbors.  The elongated petioles of the leaves twine around any available support as the vine climbs.  Clematis terniflora will grow as much as 20’ in a single growing season after a hard pruning.006

Vines of Clematis virginiana can be grown from seed or cutting, but cuttings are preferred to propagate Clematis terniflora.  Layering is the easiest method, although cuttings with at least two pairs of leaves can be rooted in moist soil.003

Although I’ve planted Sweet Autumn Clematis in my gardens over the years, it is most exciting when it suddenly bursts into bloom in the wild.  There is a special energy and excitement when the green vine, growing on green shrubs, suddenly bursts into bloom with its snowy white blossoms.  Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds flock to its sweetly scented nectar filled blossoms.  What a beautiful way to begin the long good bye to summer.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

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The view across the James River to Surry County, from the Colonial Parkway.

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