Butterfly Musings

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly feeding on Lantana

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I took a break from watering the garden Sunday morning to spend some time with the butterflies happily feeding in the late September sunshine.  Their movement enlivens the space as they drift and swoop from flower to flower.

I’m always a bit surprised when one takes off and floats up into the surrounding trees, or across the roof and out of sight.  For all of their apparent fragility, they are surprisingly resilient and tough.

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Judith tells me that the 30 odd Eastern Black Swallowtail cats she adopted from our fennel plants a few weeks ago have all gone into chrysalis now.  She has been feeding them organic parsley as she fattened them up and prepared them for their magnificent metamorphosis.

What a wonderful process to observe.  I can’t wait until they begin to emerge, and at least a few of them ‘come home’ to our garden once again.

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I wonder whether this beautiful swallowtail I photographed Sunday might have been one of the little cats I found on some of our parsley in August.  I just left them be, hoping they would survive to one day fly.

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Living in such close relationship with these beautiful butterflies has transformed my idea of tending a garden.  Now, if I could plant only a single type of flowering plant in summer, I would plant Lantana.  I would plant Lantana because it is such a magnet for butterflies.  They love it, and growing it almost guarantees there will be winged visitors all summer long.

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But beyond planting the best of the nectar plants:  Lantana, Agastache, Buddleia, Hibiscus, Verbena, Zinnia. One also needs to have a selection of host plants.  Yes, butterflies want to eat.  But they really want a home where they can shelter, lay their eggs, and raise their generations.

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Planting host plants implies accepting that the butterfly larvae will eat their leaves.  They may be unsightly for a while.  But that is a reasonable trade-off when one considers that all of those cats have the opportunity to become butterflies.

Please understand that wildlife gardening requires a complete re-thinking of what traditional gardeners assume and expect.  Rather than trying to eliminate insects and their ‘damage,’ we invite and welcome them.  We look after their needs as faithfully as we put out food and water for our cat or dog.

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Black Swallowtail cats enjoy the parsley. Find end of season parsley on sale now. A biennial, it will return next spring.

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Many native trees and shrubs serve as host plants for native butterflies.  If you want to know more about what to plant to host and feed butterflies commonly seen in coastal Virginia, please see the list compiled by the Butterfly Society of Virginia.  Even if you only have space for a flower pot or two, you can enjoy the magic of caterpillars by growing host herbs like parsley, fennel and dill for swallowtails; some milkweed for Monarchs, or even a few native violets.

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Monarch cats on potted Asclepias

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Once we better understand insects, and the crucial role they play in our environment, we come to understand their interrelationships with one another, and with the plants in our garden.  We welcome the many sorts of bees and wasps, feed the butterflies, admire the beetles and listen for the music of the crickets and katydids.

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I’ve found the secret is to plant a tremendous diversity of plants, and plant abundantly, so that what damage there  may be to certain leaves can be overlooked or at least put into context and accepted.

Once one decides to welcome and nurture butterflies, bees, and the many other insects who show up for dinner, it is crucial to abstain from using insecticides and avoid herbicides.  The more one observes, the more one realizes that insects are an intricate part of the web of life.  Birds will turn up to feast on some of them, and their own food webs will develop to keep everything in balance.  Diversity leads to sustainability.

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Wildlife seek shelter, food, water, places to rest and safe places to raise their young.  The more of these our gardens provide, the more we can assist in helping diminished and endangered populations rebound.

Each of us with a bit of land to garden can help restore the web of life so often broken by over development and encroachment on wild spaces.  As if by magic, we find turtles and toads, lizards, many sorts of birds, squirrels, and butterflies sharing our garden with us.

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When the butterflies come home to our garden spaces, we know we have been blessed with their beauty.

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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“I love nature dearly and all creatures
that contribute to make it what it is.
I see the beauty in all expressions of life,
and I see how blind so many of us still are.
Our planet is remarkably abundant
and there’s more than enough for us all.
It is greed and shortsightedness that create the illusion
of scarcity.”
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Yossi Ghinsberg
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A Touch of Gold

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Rudbeckia fills our garden in late August, blooming in a rich tapestry of gold.

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This native Rudbeckia hirta, which first seeded itself here more than five years ago, attracts golden bees, butterflies and goldfinches to its tasty nectar and abundant seeds.

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Rosettes of Rudbeckia leaves emerge in mid-March all across the garden.  They sprout wherever a seed has fallen or an underground root has spread.

There are always plenty to dig and share, especially those that emerge in the pathways.  The plants remain in the background througout spring and early summer, biding their time as they bulk up in the warming sun.

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How much is too much?” I sometimes wonder…

Native plants are enthusiastic growers, determined to survive.  They take every available advantage to thrive.  In full sun and over tree roots, clumps sometimes get wilty when days grow hot and rain is scarce.  I sometimes revive them with a drink from the hose.

But those that are well established, in deep soil and partial shade, care for themselves.  All we do is clear the paths and set the boundaries….

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Their opening comes slowly; not all at once.  Accustomed to sharing their space, they mix well with others.

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Physostegia virginiana, obedient plant

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Native obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana, creeps and spreads in the same way.  It has spread even faster and more aggressively than the Rudbeckia. 

This spring, I took the string trimmer to many areas where these two grow among a growing spread of goldenrod, Solidago.  I decided last year that those huge, waving plumes of gold were a bit over the top for our little woodland garden, and I’ve been cutting back the goldenrod to give other perennials a better chance.

The Rudbeckia and Physotegia took that trimming in their stride and came back bushier and stronger than ever.

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Now native mist flower, Conoclinium coelestinum, is also growing in the mix, offering a subtle touch of periwinkle contrast.  I didn’t plan and intentionally plant this mix of native perennials to create a ‘meadow style’ planting.  I only recognize what nature is doing, and guide it a bit.

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And our rich reward is a touch of gold gilding these late summer days, delighting us as we await the rich color and welcome coolness of autumn.

Our garden remains dynamic, changing from year to year.  Some plants persist and expand while others decline.

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We plant a few new things each season and other turn up on their own.

Each new year’s unfolding remains a grand surprise, guided by nature and the seasons; a golden opportunity to learn and grow as a gardener.

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Another native Rudbeckia, cutleaf coneflower, also fills our late summer garden with pure gold.  With a much larger habit and larger flowers, it is equally attractive to many pollinators and birds.

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Woodland Gnome 2010

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“I did not know that mankind were suffering for want of gold.

I have seen a little of it.

I know that it is very malleable, but not so malleable as wit.

A grain of gold will gild a great surface,

but not so much as a grain of wisdom.”
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Henry David Thoreau

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“Ô, Sunlight!

The most precious gold to be found on Earth.”
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Roman Payne

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Hibiscus Summer

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Hibiscus of many sizes, shapes and colors fill our garden this week to the delight of butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators.  Actually, to our delight, as well, as we enjoy their bold colors and beautiful forms.

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Hibiscus flowers call across the garden, inviting closer inspection of their sculptural beauty.

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Our herbaceous Hibiscus are natives or native cultivars.  Native Hibiscus delighted us during our first summer in this garden, and they still thrill as they bloom each year.

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Hibiscus moscheutos

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As natives, they ask little beyond sunlight, moisture and a place to grow.  Long after their flowers fade, they continue giving sustenance to birds and structure to the garden as their woody stems and seed pods ripen and split.  Cut them in early December, sow the seeds and spray them gold for a bit of glitter in holiday decorations.  Or leave them to catch winter’s ice and snow, feeding those birds who remain in the garden into the new year.

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Hibiscus coccineus

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I wrote about our native red Hibiscus coccineus last August, when it normally blooms.  It has already been blooming this year for almost a week; yet another indication of phenological shifts in response to our warming climate.

We love seeing these scarlet flowers nodding above the garden, perched atop their distinctive and beautiful foliage.  I try to collect and spread their seeds as the season wanes, to encourage more plants to emerge each year.

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The tree Hibiscus, Hybiscus syriaca, are widely naturalized, though they originally came from Asia.  Drought and pollution tolerant, they are easy to grow and easily hybridize in an ever expanding selection of cultivars.  Beloved by bees and butterflies, they bloom over many weeks from early summer until autumn.  These fast growing trees reseed themselves in our garden and I often have seedlings to share.

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Hibsicus syriaca

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Hibiscus mark the height of summer in our garden.  They bloom over a long period, and we feel a subtle shift into another, late-summer season when they finally begin to fade.

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Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Plants Want to Live

Native redbud, Cercis canadensis

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The snow fell so fast and wet, that it was already bending the branches of our large dogwood tree so low they nearly touched the deck.   By the time I realized what was happening, I could hear cracks and crashes where trees all around us were having branches ripped off under the weight of such a heavy snow, in mid-December, before the trees had a chance to harden up for winter.

I grabbed a coat, hat and broom and went to work, knocking globs of snow off the dogwood’s branches, allowing them to spring back to a more normal posture.  After knocking off all the snow I could reach from the deck, I headed out into the yard to do the same on trees and shrubs all around the garden.

I could hear sirens in the distance that afternoon, and took a call from a neighbor telling me our neighborhood entrance was blocked by fallen trees. We listened to the groans and snaps of trees into the night, and the following day, under the weight of that unusual snow.

We lost three trees that day and our tall bamboo was bent to the ground, where it froze in place and remained for more than a week.  Bamboo stalks fell across our fig tree and across the fern garden, like an icy roof.  It took a few weeks, after the thaw, to clean up enough to truly assess the damage.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even get to them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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Our great old redbud tree was bent even further by the weight of the snow-laden bamboo.  Already  leaning towards the sun, the tree leaned at a precipitous angle up hill, its roots nearly in the ravine at the bottom of the yard, and its major branches now resting in the fern garden.  Many branches broke, others needed drastic pruning.  But the roots held, and we cleaned up the tree as well as we could and determined to wait for spring to see how it responded.

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New growth emerges from our broken redbud tree.

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Well, plants want to live.  And this tree is determined to make the best of an awkward situation.  We have been amazed to see how much new growth the tree has produced since March.

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There is a rhythm to tending a garden.  We plant, we tend, we prune, and we stand in awe as our plants become established and take off to grow according to their own patterns.  Like watching a young adult child find their way in the world, our woodies and perennials often have a mind of their own as they claim their space in the garden, reproduce, and grow into their potential.

Sometimes that is a wonderful thing and we admire the maturing plant’s beauty.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Sometimes that is a terrifying thing as we see a plant rapidly claim the garden’s real estate, shading and crowding out the many other (more?) desirable plants we want to grow.

Kindness can turn against us, sometimes, when we welcome a little gift plant from a well meaning friend, finding a spot for it in our garden and tending it through its first year or two.

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Rudbeckia laciniata, a native that feeds wildlife, and an unapologetic thug that has taken over our ‘butterfly garden.’  This came as an uninvited guest with a gift of Monarda from a gardening friend.

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Sometimes the plant gifts itself to us as a windblown or bird-sown seed.  It grows, and we give it a chance to show us what it can become.  And then, Wham!  Suddenly, it has become an outsized monster and we do battle with it to keep it in bounds, or sometimes eradicate it entirely.

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Mid-September 2018, and the Solidago, goldenrod, had just begun to bloom.

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I am way too kind when it comes to such plants.  My curiosity gets the better of my good sense.  I let that little plant grow out just to watch it, and then it has seeded all over the place and I’m spending time trying to get it back under control, and rescue plants about to be completely strangled and starved by this newcomer.

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The Devil’s Walking Stick, , Aralia spinosa, in full bloom and covered by bees in late summer.  This native tree will grow tall, with it trunk covered in sharp thorns.

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The first of the Solidago showed up two summers ago.  It was a novelty.  I had just joined the Virginia Native Plant Society and I was trying to reform my natural preference for pretty imported hybrids and welcome more natives to the garden.  I let it grow.

Then last summer, I was amazed at how many very tall goldenrods grew up.  But I was busy.  I didn’t have much time in my own garden, and I let them grow.

My partner grumbled as they topped 6′ high, but I felt smugly virtuous for giving space to these native plants and supporting the pollinators.  We enjoyed the butterflies and they were pretty once they bloomed golden and lush.  I cut them down in December, but not soon enough.  By then there were seeds, everywhere.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea, Edgeworthia, Camellia, Rudbeckia, Solidago and the surrounding trees create layers of texture in early September 2018.

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And just in the last two weeks, those little goldenrods have grown inches a day, it seems.  My partner came to me on Monday with that look of determination I know so well.  They were growing out into our ever narrowing paths.  A deer had gotten into the front garden, and we couldn’t even see where it was hiding for the lush growth.  I had to do something….

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The new stand of Solidago, cut back to allow black eyed Susans and other perennials space to grow….

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And that is how it came to be that I was taking the string trimmer to my perennial beds Monday evening, under observation, cutting down as many of those Solidago plants as I could until the battery gave out.  Our neighbors paused on the street, wondering if I’d lost my mind, cutting down every plant in sight.

We were back at it early Tuesday morning, and the day I’d planned to spend planting pots went to cutting, pulling, pruning, and generally editing our front garden to remove not only the Solidago, but also the small forest of devil’s walking stick trees growing up from a frighteningly wide network of roots.

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Another little Aralia, looking for space to grow…

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That was another volunteer that I let grow ‘to see what it would do.’  The summer flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees.  The lovely purple berries are favorites of our song birds.  The huge, palm frond like leaves grow quickly as the tree shoots up, several feet per year.  Its trunk is covered in long, sharp spines.

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Aralia spinosa, a native volunteer in our garden, looked rather tropical as its first leaves emerged in April of 2017.

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This Virginia native is a great tree for wildlife.  But our neighbor warned me, when I offered him one, about its roots.  He told of having to hack it back each summer at his family home when he was a teen.  I listened politely, and let our Aralia spinosa grow on, a novelty in the front garden.

But it fell in our October hurricane and my partner took that opportunity, which I was away, to cut away the main tree entirely.  And I’ve been cutting out a dozen or more sprouts every week since mid-March.

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Yet another goldenrod or obedient plant, growing up under one of our Hydrangea shrubs.  It takes a sharp eye to spot them all, and a bit of balance and agility to reach them all!

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Some were hiding in the goldenrod forest, nestled between other shrubs and cozying up to our emerging Cannas.  What the weed eater couldn’t reach, I managed to cut with my secateurs.  Like a weird game of twister, I found footing among the Cannas and goldenrod stubble and cut those thorny stalks back as close to the ground as I could reach.

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A part of our fern garden, where ferns are filling in as a complete ground cover on a steep bank. 

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Plants just want to live.  Their business is to reproduce, grow, and make as many seeds as possible.  This is a basic principle that every gardener has to face.

The wilder the plant, usually the more determined it will be.  Like the Japanese stilt grass I pull out by the handfuls every year from April to December.  Like the bamboo that tries to march up the hill from the ravine every spring, and that we find growing feet in a day sometimes, until we discover it and break it back to the ground.  We’ve learned the squirrels love gnoshing on fresh bamboo shoots.

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The march of the bamboo up the hill back in early May of 2014.  We have to control the growth up towards the garden each spring.

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To make a garden is to offer a weird sort of universal hospitality.  Whatever you think you might want to grow, nature has its own ideas.   Weeds happen. 

I chuckle to myself at native plant sales to see plants I pulled as ‘weeds’ the first few years we lived here, sold as desirable ‘native plants’ at a respectable price.  There is wild Ageratum, and Indian strawberry, wax myrtle and golden ragwort.  Our front yard hosts a growing patch of fleabane, Erigeron annus, each spring.  It crowds out the ‘grass’ and blooms for a solid month, around the time the daffodils are fading.

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Native fleabane, probably Erigeron pulchellus, grow in our front lawn. A short lived perennial, this patch grows a bit larger each year. After it finishes flowering, we mow this part of the ‘lawn’ once again.

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Each of us has to make our own peace with the native plants our area supports.  Last year, I decided the pokeweed had to go.  I pulled and cut for months, but I prevented that from going to seed.  I’ve found one huge plant so far this year and a few small seedlings.  They will soon be eradicated, too.

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Pokeweed has overgrown the Salvia, Colocasia and Hibiscus that have grown here for the last several summers. They are just holding on beneath its shade in August 2017.  We lost the Salvia that year, but the Colocasias remain.

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I walk among the growing oaks that I ‘allowed’ to grow when they were only inches tall.  Every seedling demands a decision from the gardener.  Can it grow here?  How will this change the rest of the garden?

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Obedient plant and black eyed Susans are also native perennials, that quickly fill any open area with roots and the seeds they drop.  They are great for pollinators, last many weeks, and make nice cut flowers.  By cutting back the Solidago this week, I hope these will fill in this part of the garden once again.

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Those are the sorts of questions one must ask every month of every year, to keep a garden in balance.  Those are the questions to keep in mind when shopping at the nursery, or the plant sale, too.

Curiosity is a good thing.  But wisdom and a bit of self-discipline are even better.

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The ferns I planted in the hollow stump of this peach tree, lost to the December storm, are growing well.  And, the stump itself is sending up new growth. from its living roots.  Plants just want to live

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Woodland Gnome 2019
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Seedling redbud trees continue to grow at the base of the stump.

Sunday Dinner: Accomplishments

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The resolve to accomplish your goals is what counts.

If you earnestly put your mind to something,

your brain, your body, your environment-

-everything-

-will start working toward achieving that end. 

Daisaku Ikeda

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“I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything,

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

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Edward Everett Hale

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“There is no limit to the amount of good you can do

if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

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Ronald Reagan

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“Do the best you can in every task,

no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time.

No one learns more about a problem

than the person at the bottom.”

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Sandra Day O’Connor

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“It’s no use saying, “We are doing our best.”

You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

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Winston S. Churchill

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“To accomplish great things,

we must dream as well as act.”

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Anatole France

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2018

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“If you can’t do great things, Mother Teresa used to say,

do little things with great love.

If you can’t do them with great love,

do them with a little love.

If you can’t do them with a little love,

do them anyway.

Love grows when people serve.”

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John Ortberg

Fabulous Friday: Hibiscus in Bloom

Hibiscus moscheutos opens its first blooms of the season today.

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We always celebrate when the Hibiscus moscheutos bloom.  These easy native perennials largely care for themselves.  Although they die back to the ground each autumn, they grow quickly once their stems finally appear again in late spring.

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Native Hibiscus prove very accommodating and will grow in a variety of conditions.   Seen most commonly in the wild near water, they appreciate a little irrigation when the weather turns hot and dry.  They grow in a variety of soils from partial shade to full sun.  Happy, well irrigated plants grow to between four and five feet tall.

We let them seed themselves around and grow where they will, always delighted when their colorful blooms quite suddenly appear in mid-summer.  Each stem may produce a half dozen or more buds.  Once the flowers fade, interesting seed capsules ripen and persist into winter.  Many of our songbirds enjoy pecking ripe seeds from the open capsules until we finally cut their dried stems down.

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Hybrid Hibiscus ‘Kopper King’ is much showier than our native Hibiscus with somewhat larger flowers. Its foliage is also more attractive… until the Japanese beetles have their way with the leaves.  This cultivar was introduced by the Fleming Brothers of Lincoln, Nebraska, who have produced several Hibiscus hybrids based on crosses of H. moscheutos and H. coccineus.

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While many cultivars of H. moscheutos are available on the market, I believe that most of ours are the species.  We planted H. ‘Kopper King’ about four years ago and it has grown into a large and vigorous plant. Various Hibiscus volunteers in our garden bloom deep pink, light pink or white.  We see them, too, in the marshes along the James River and creeks that feed it.

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Hardy Hibiscus coccineus will start blooming by early August.

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Native Hibiscus prove a reliable, hardy and very beautiful perennial in our garden.  We have more native Hibiscus species yet to bloom; and the Asian Hibiscus syriacus, or woody Rose of Sharon, is in the midst of its much longer season of bloom.

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Hibiscus syriacus, Rose of Sharon

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The woody shrub form of Asian Hibiscus also seeds itself around the garden, growing quickly from seedling to blooming tree in just a few years.  Although new cultivars are introduced each year, we have four or five different flower colors and forms which keep us quite happy.  A non-native, it also feeds many creatures with its nectar, pollen, leaves and seeds.

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Rose of Sharon, or tree Hibiscus

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It is fabulous to enjoy a plethora of gorgeous showy flowers with very little effort on our part during this muggiest part of summer.  It is also fabulous to watch the beautiful and varied bees, butterflies and hummingbirds that visit to enjoy their abundant pollen and sweet nectar each day.

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Rose of Sharon in our shrub border bloom prolifically from mid-June until early September.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

Fabulous Friday:  Happiness is contagious;

let’s infect one another!

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“Seize the moments of happiness,

love and be loved!

That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

It is the one thing we are interested in here.”

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Leo Tolstoy

 

Blossom XLI: Tradescantia

Tradescantia, spiderwort

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“Everyday I discover more and more beautiful things.

It’s enough to drive one mad.

I have such a desire to do everything,

my head is bursting with it.”

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Claude Monet

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“It’s on the strength of observation and reflection

that one finds a way.

So we must dig and delve unceasingly.”

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Claude Monet

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The Williamsburg Botanical Garden keeps many native plants in its collection. This area is for pollinators.

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“It was such a pleasure to sink one’s hands

into the warm earth, to feel at one’s fingertips

the possibilities of the new season.”

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Kate Morton

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“The master of the garden is the one who waters it,

trims the branches, plants the seeds, and pulls the weeds.

If you merely stroll through the garden,

you are but an acolyte.”

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Vera Nazarian

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Photos by Woodland Gnome

all photos from the Williamsburg Botanical Garden
May 2018

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“If you wish to make anything grow, you must understand it,

and understand it in a very real sense.

‘Green fingers’ are a fact,

and a mystery only to the unpracticed.

But green fingers are the extensions

of a verdant heart.”

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Russell Page

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WPC: Twisted Wisteria

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If you have ever wondered whether plants are aware and know what they are doing, just study a Wisteria vine for a while.  Plants are wiser than you may want to believe.

This formidable vine grows across an arbor at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden in Freedom Park.  Believe it or not, this vine hasn’t been growing here more than a dozen years.  It already looks quite venerable and sage, doesn’t it?

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It has enthusiastically taken over the arbor, like a toddler with a new play set!

Never mind the climbing Hydrangea petiolaris desperately trying to grow up the opposite side, or the always feisty Virginia creeper that has snuck its way through the dense network of twining branches.

These three neighbors fight it out, now, for the best real estate on the arbor to catch the summer rays.

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This is our native North American Wisteria frutescens, which grows from Virginia west to Texas, and south into Florida.  A deciduous woody vine, W. frutescens will grow to only about 15 meters long, which is only two thirds of the mature height of Asian Wisterias.

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Wisteria grows best is moist soil with full, or at least partial sun.  It normally uses a strong  nearby tree for support, but also grows on fences, trellises, or pergolas.  It makes a lovely ‘ceiling’ for a pergola over a  porch or deck.

Our native Wisteria may also be trained into a standard tree form, but requires a lot of tending along the way and regular trims to keep it in bounds.

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A member of the pea family, Wisteria captures nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil along its roots, helping to ‘fertilize’ other plants growing nearby.  But please don’t taste its pea-like pods!  Wisteria is a poisonous plant if eaten, which helps protect it from hungry rabbits and deer.

Wisteria also absorbs carbon from the air, cleaning and purifying the air around it while fixing excess carbon in its woody stems and roots.

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Our native Wisteria’s flowers are smaller than its Asian cousins’, too; and so it is often favored by gardeners who want a more contained Wisteria for a small garden.

Our native Wisteria is also a larval host for several types of butterflies and moths, including skippers.

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This particular vine has embraced its arbor in a crushing grip.  It is as though the vine itself has become a living, twisted, arbor that will stand the test of time even if the man-made frame eventually comes apart.

Let this be a caution to you if you ever choose to plant one near your home.  I did that once, and realized that wood and nails and staples are no match for this prodigious vine, no matter how sturdy the construction may appear!

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Wisteria twists clockwise around its support, weaving itself into a living sculpture.

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While other vines may have tendrils that twine or sticky pads that stick to surfaces like masonry, Wisteria is the twisting, twirling boa constrictor vine of the plant kingdom.

It gives shade to us weary gardeners, and it generously shelters birds and bugs, lizards and toads.  It is teeming with life, reaching wildly with its newest branches in search of something to support its restless sprawl.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  Twisted

Where In the World?

Virginia native Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

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Lesley Buck, in her beautiful new book, Cutting Back, describes her apprenticeship as a gardener in the gardens of Kyoto.  After studying the art of pruning and Bonsai for more than 7 years near her home in California, she took a leap of faith and moved to Japan in hopes of finding an apprenticeship.  Her memoir not only reflects on her experiences, but also shares some of her understanding of gardening with native plants.

Early in the book, Buck observes that Japanese gardens are composed almost entirely of native plants, many of them centuries old within the garden.  The gardener’s goal is to make the garden’s landscape look and feel as natural as possible.

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Her advice to gardeners in America interested in creating a Japanese garden?  Use plants native to the natural environment where you live, and use Japanese design principles in composing and caring for this garden of your own particular native plants.

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North American native Wisteria frutescens, growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden

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I was surprised, and yet not surprised, to read this advice.  The ‘Japanese’ gardens I grew up visiting featured Japanese plants:  Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Iris, Japanese pines and of course, Japanese Maple trees.  Many of us favor Japanese or Chinese flowering woody plants for our gardens whether we style our gardens after Japanese principles, or not.  These are beautiful plants and we enjoy them.

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Acer palmatum

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And yet, how often have you noticed, when traveling from city to city, the same relatively small palette of plants used time and again in public and residential landscapes?  The nursery trade in our country traditionally has focused on certain popular and easy to grow and transport plants.

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English shrub roses, hybridized and cultivated over several centuries, make me feel at home. I plant them in every garden I make.

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Walk into any garden center in the eastern half of the United States right now, and you will find flat after flat of neon bright petunias and geraniums, won’t you?  There will be Knock-Out roses, a nice selection of box and at least a few pots of mophead Hydrangea.

And of course we’ll find the ubiquitous azaleas, Rhododendrons and Japanese maple trees.  We like what we like, don’t we?

When we rely on nursery stock to landscape our private and public spaces, we may create a familiar sense of beauty; or perhaps even a boring predictability from one area to another.   Do we want to encounter the same plants again and again as we travel, or do we want to find something unique to our destination?

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In this section of our fern garden an interesting mix of native ferns, hybrids and imported Hellebores grow elbow to elbow.

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Only recently have more and more nurseries chosen to propagate and sell a larger percentage of native plants.  And in recent years, a growing cohort of us have taken an interest in learning about, and  appreciating our native plants in our own home gardens.  It is these natives which give us our sense of place, which help us identify ‘home.’  Our native plants attract and support the birds, butterflies and small mammals of our native environment, too.

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Broad beech fern, Phegopteris hexagonoptera, is native in woodsy areas of coastal Virginia.  It grows here at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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We enjoy a wide choice of very beautiful native plants in coastal Virginia.  Our landscapes are filled with majestic trees , vigorous vines, wild fruits and interesting flowers.  Surrounding ourselves with familiar plants helps us feel more ‘at home,’ and gives us a sense of place that feels very personal.

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A native muscadine grape vine grows near our home. We expect to be picking grapes by mid-summer.

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Yet,  because we have over 400 years of history here, there are many other plants, brought to Virginia by the early colonists, which may feel like natives, because they have become a part of our culture and our historic heritage:  boxwood, tulips, peonies, roses, azaleas and bearded Iris come to mind.

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Peonies, much loved in our Virginia gardens, came to our country with the early colonists.

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Wandering the historic gardens in our area, one realizes that the colonists created beautiful formal, European style gardens in this new land of Virginia to make it feel like home to them.  Even as they send seeds and cuttings of Virginia’s trees back to Europe, they imported the herbs, flowers and shrubs they were accustomed to finding in their gardens ‘back home’.

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The fronds of native ferns emerge through the leaves of a daffodil.  Daffodils were highly valued in Colonial times and were among the beautiful European plants colonists brought with them to Virginia.

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The annual rhythm of growth and bloom, fruiting, seed and leaf fall bring us a sense of comfort and familiarity.  The familiar colors of the landscape help set the mood in daily life.

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Native dogwood is our state flower, and the Virginia Native Wildflower of the Year for 2018.

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These beautiful plants are like the well worn and much loved kitchen table in our childhood home.  They help create our sense of our own place in the world.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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Native Hydrangea quercifolia

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For the Daily Post’s
Weekly Photo Challenge:  A Place In the World

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Hydrangea quercifolia

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When you think of Hydrangeas, do you think of the blue or pink poofy flowers growing in your grandmother’s garden?  Those mop-head Hydrangeas are still popular with many, and we have a few left by a previous owner.  But there are many other sorts of Hydrangeas available that offer a bit more character and a longer season of interest.

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The oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, is native to the Southeastern United States.   It is a tall, woody deciduous shrub; hardy, drought tolerant, and somewhat deer resistant.  I say ‘somewhat’ because we have had newly planted ones grazed in our garden.  But there are other, more tasty shrubs the deer prefer!  Once established, these Hydrangeas will only rarely be touched by deer.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea in early June

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The oakleaf Hydrangea was first noted by Pennsylvania botanist William Bartram as he explored the area now known as the Carolinas, south to Florida, in the 1770s.  It is one of the plants he collected and exported back to England for the nursery trade.

This is a tall, understory shrub with coarse foliage.  The flowers are white, sometimes fading to cream or pink as they age.  The flowers are good in a vase fresh or dried.

I like the oakleaf Hydrangea because once its huge, cone shaped flowers emerge in early May, they remain beautiful for many months.

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Even into winter, the flowers dry on the shrub and add interest.  Once the leaves finally fall, the remains of the flowers cling to the woody frame of the plant.

The oakleaf Hydrangea’s large, interesting leaves turn vivid scarlet and remain vibrant for many weeks before they eventually fall.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea in October

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There are several interesting cultivars of the native species, and we grow H. ‘Ruby Slippers,’ which is a dwarf variety with pinkish flowers, and H. ‘Snow Queen.’  Most Hydrangeas are relatively easy to propagate from cuttings, by digging up a new shoot with roots attached, or by layering.  Oakleaf Hydrangea looks good as a specimen, a hedge, or even as an alle’e, on a large property.

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Oakleaf Hydrangea December 2017

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There are a number of beautiful species and cultivars within the Hydrangea genus, and all have great character.  I’ve grown many of them over the years, including the H. macrophylla that bloom in pretty pinks and blues and purples.  Some are quite fussy and challenging to grow, requiring plenty of moisture and shade to thrive.

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But the oakleaf Hydrangea is as tough and sturdy as its name implies.  Hardy to Zone 5, it can adapt to a variety of soils and light.  Happiest in partial shade, growing under the canopy of mature trees, it can manage with full sun, too.  You can even grow a new shrub in a pot for a year or two before moving it out into the garden, as it grows larger.

If you’ve not yet grown Hydrangea quercifolia, you might consider adding this elegant, hardy shrub to your garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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