Thursday, July 26, 2012 21 comments

Wild thing, you make my heart sing

The other-worldly Indian Pipe
One amazing thing about living in the mountains is that just about every time I walk out the door I see something new and different.

After missing a number of cool photo ops because I don’t like to drag my heavy Nikon around, I invested in a small pocket camera I carry with me all the time. It’s the best $99 I’ve ever spent.

The other day I was out walking when I spied a most unusual plant growing underneath a fern. From afar it looked like a skeleton’s bony fingers. I incorrectly assumed it was a fungus.

Some stems have a pinkish hue
After consulting my trusty wildflower book I learned this unearthly looking specimen is called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora.) Unlike most plants it doesn’t have chlorophyll so the stems and “flowers” are white and waxy.

Small wonder it is also referred to as the corpse or ghost plant.

Experts reckon the plant evolved during the Jurassic period at the peak of the dinosaur era.

Although I’d never seen one in all my years visiting the mountains, this relative of the Rhododendron can be found throughout the country with the exception of the desert southwest. (However the US Forest Service says it is not commonly encountered.)

Indian Pipe provides food for small bumblebees and food for thought for those of us who stumble across the mysterious plant for the first time.

Emily Dickinson, called the Indian Pipe “the preferred flower of life” and used an illustration of it on the cover of her book Poems.

North Carolina mountain folklore tells us Cherokee Indians believed that plants appeared where the ashes from peace pipes had been scattered.

Another legend says Indian Pipe emerges in woodland locales where relatives have quarreled without resolution.

I’d love to know what happened on the site where I found this perennial wildflower.

Lilies and Orchids…

The Carolina Lily
Further down the road I saw what looked like a Turk’s-Cap Lily growing all by itself in a wooded grove. 

Once again my research showed it was actually the Carolina Lily, also known as Michaux’s Lily, named after the French Botanist who made many expeditions to the mountains and discovered the Catawba rhododendron.

Carolina Lilies are much smaller than the Turk’s-Caps and produce fewer flowers –sometimes only one or two.

It isn't a plantain at all but a wild orchid
Heading home I noticed the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain I pass each day had thrown out spikes of tiny white flowers.  Some say the striking plant got its name because the spike looks like a rattler’s tail. Others say the silvery markings on its leaves resemble snakeskin.

No matter how it got its name, this member of the orchid family is easy to spot because of its distinctive leaves -- each one can live as long as four years. The flowers supposedly look like tiny orchids but I’d need a magnifying glass to prove it.

 Perhaps because of the unusual markings, early medical practitioners and Native Americans used the leaves and roots to treat snakebites. Native women thought rubbing the leaves on their skin made them more beautiful (in the interest of science I must give this a try.)

… and Bears (oh my!)

After a long day of finding, photographing and researching local wildflowers, I like to sit on my deck with a large glass of shiraz and listen to some of my favorite tunes.

Recently, just before pouring my adult beverage, I heard something strange going on outside and saw the head of a black bear appear just over the deck railing.

Junior had climbed up over 30 feet to see what hors d’oeuvres were being served. He placed his order for bird seed and I gladly let him pull the finch feeder out of the wall and take it away.

Sometimes the things I see in the mountains make my heart sing.

Other times, they make my heart stop.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 21 comments

Not your Granny's hydrangeas

Developed over 50 years ago, Glowing Embers only blooms once but is still a favorite

Colorful, low maintenance and long-flowering, hydrangeas have all the qualities you could ask for in a garden plant.

They aren’t fussy as long as you provide sun and moisture as your zone dictates. They aren’t plagued by pests or diseases for the most part. They’re attractive at virtually every stage, even aging gracefully. And they display extravagant clusters of delicate papery flowers that light up the landscape between June and October. 

Endless Summer
Small wonder these versatile shrubs have long been stalwarts of the midsummer garden.

 An old favorite is transformed

The hydrangea family is a relatively small one with around one hundred species in existence. For most people, the French hydrangeas with their bright blue and pink flowers (determined by the pH of the soil) have been the most familiar.

Then in 2003, a Midwest plant breeder introduced a new repeat-blooming variety and the hydrangea world was forever transformed.

The bigleaf hydrangea Endless Summer not only produced billowy blossoms from early summer through fall, it was also exceptionally hardy blooming reliably from zone 9 to 4.

On the heels of Endless Summer came more tantalizing hydrangea varieties including the Forever & Ever series, Invincibelle Spirit and Incrediball.

Annabelle was a parent to both Incrediball and Invincibelle Spirit
Forever & Ever hydrangeas bloom on new wood so if they die back to the ground, they will return to bloom again the next year.

Invincibelle Spirit is the first arborescens variety to produce pink flowers. It was developed by Dr. Tom Ranney who works at the Mountain Horticultural Center at North Carolina State University, and a then-graduate student, Richard Olsen.

Lacecap hydrangea Twist-n-Shout
While hiking through the Blue Ridge one day, Mr. Olsen spied a pink lacecap hydrangea that became an important part of their hydrangea breeding program. The eventual result was a spectacular rebloomer that produces 8-inch bright pink flowers for four months or longer.


These new varieties are just the beginning.

Today, nine years after Endless Summer arrived on the scene, you can find hydrangeas in tempting shades of white, cream, pink, blue, amethyst and red. And you'll find lacecap and oakleaf shapes as well as the familiar mophead.

Starting over with fresh, new faces

 Nikko Blues were showoffs in our Maryland garden
We didn’t know it at first but while we were living in Maryland, boaters going up and down our creek dubbed our place “the hydrangea house. ” It’s funny because I thought of it as a rose cottage, but from the water, they saw a solid hedge of blue blooms all across the back of our white Cape Cod from June through August.

I can’t take much credit for the display because we inherited most of the bushes. They weren’t anything special – mostly the old fashioned Nikko Blue. But despite bitter winter winds and summer droughts, they were always spectacular.

Forever & Ever Red
When we moved to the mountains we brought some of the Nikko cuttings with us and also added the original Endless Summer along with Forever & Ever Red and Fantasia.

The first year I wondered if we’d made a mistake with the newer plants. The Nikko cuttings took off like crazy but every afternoon I could hear the blooms of Endless Summer hitting the ground as they wilted in the afternoon sun.

 This year has been a different story.

Yummy Vanilla Strawberry
The Endless Summers have tripled in size and are covered in showy blue powder puffs. Forever & Ever Red offers vivid color against dark green leaves and makes a great combination with the new Raspberry Dazzle dwarf crape myrtle.

I had a space available towards the back of the border and decided to try a variety other than mopheads. Vanilla Strawberry is a relative of the classic PeeGee hydrangea and grows to 7 feet in height with a spread of 4-5 feet.

It is said to deliver a summer-long parade of huge flower heads that change from white to pink to strawberry red, sometimes with all three shades showing off on the plant at once.

It sounds like it's going to be a refreshing summer sorbet.

My grandmother would've thought it was delicious.