There’s Nothing Wrong With Those Leaves, They’re Just Dying.

One of the best parts about going to plant sales and setting up a booth is that you get to hear everyone’s story about their favorite plants that you may or may not be selling.  Seeing people enthusiastic to learn and share plant knowledge refills my inner reservoir of hope.   We participated in the Hall County Master Gardener’s Fall Expo last weekend and talked to some wonderful people (many of whom were Hall Co. Master Gardeners, y’all were awesome!) and sold a bunch of plants.  One exchange in particular made me incredibly happy because I finally heard someone express the concept I’ve been trying to convey to anyone that will listen for years:  Leaves on a perennial plant (especially in fall ) are expendable and don not necessarily reflect the overall health of the plant.

Agastache leaves showing some yellowing as they break down.

I was talking to a couple as they browsed our plants, and as the wife decided she would like a Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophularifolia) she picked up two pots and started comparing the plants in them.  She asked her husband, “Which one?” He responded that they looked about the same.  She expressed concern about the yellowing leaves on one of the plants, but it had more stems, so she kind of wanted it more. He turned to me and asked “It’s perennial, right?” I said that it was with a nod.  He said “Well, then you’re buying the roots. Those leaves are going to be gone in a few weeks anyway.”  I think I just found my new best friend.  I’m pretty sure I saw the wife roll her eyes and then select the plant with 2 stems.

Magnolia macrophylla with some leaves that have seen better days, but quite healthy roots

Leaves on a perennial plant go through an annual life cycle that eventually ends with them shutting down and dying.  This is known as ‘leaf senescence’ and most people know it more commonly as “when the leaves change color in Autumn.”  This cycle was summed up incredibly well in a paper about the molecular causes of leaf senescence that I came across:

“Leaves initiate their life as leaf primodia. During their development and growth, they become photosynthetically competent and accumulate nutrients. Leaves then enter the senescence stage, followed by their death. Leaf senescence partly involves the process of ‘wear and tear’ during aging, but mostly is a tightly regulated process with a crucial biological purpose.”    –

Leaves are formed, perform their function of collecting solar energy to build roots, stems, more leaves and flowers, and then are systematically dismantled and their components are resorbed and redistributed to other parts of the plant.  The remaining framework is then dropped to the soil, most likely to be reabsorbed by the roots after passing through the soil food web.

In this context, looking for the leaves to be green and healthy on a plant in October seems a bit absurd.  Plants that bloom in spring usually shut down in the summer heat, and the ones that bloom in fall are sending all their resources to make flowers and then seeds before a frost comes along.  Another quote from the aforementioned paper again sums it up well:

“The blooming of spring flowers occurs through the utilization of nutrients that have been relocated from senescing autumn leaves. Thus, senescence and death in leaves are active developmental strategies that crucially contribute to the fitness and survival of a plant.”  –ibid

Just look at this beautiful Georgia Aster bloom:

Now take a look at the leaves closer to the base of the stem:

Not nearly as aesthetically appealing as the flower, but part of a totally necessary and natural process on a healthy plant.

Fall is the best time to plant perennials, so now is the time to shop at one of the many plant sales going on in the next few weeks.  If you see some less than perfect leaves, don’t worry. They won’t be there much longer. They too shall pass, and in doing so enable the roots to survive the winter.

Milkweed for Monarchs….and everyone else!

The recent push to plant Milkweed for Monarchs is a welcome development in the gardening community.  Monarchs are dependent on Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) for their survival, as it is the only food their caterpillars can eat.  But it’s not just for Monarchs! LOTS of pollinators visit the flowers to drink the nectar.  I took my camera out to several of our patches of Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) yesterday to document a smapling of the variety of insects I see on the flowers.

One of the common names of Asclepias tuberosa is ‘Butterflyweed’ so one would expect to see butterflies.  This female Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is dipping her long proboscis into the nectar rich base of the flower in order to drink it up.  It’s like a built in straw.

A close cousin, the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) also feeds on the nectar. Much like the Monarch Zebra Swallowtail caterpillars can only feed on the leaves of the plants in a single genus, Asimina, or Paw Paws.

This Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) was looking a little tattered, as it was probably approaching the end of it’s ~2 week long adult life.  It was still sipping nectar as it rested on the flowers.

Bees also love the nectar from this plant.  Here a Green Sweat Bee (Agapostemon spp.) perches it’s tiny body atop the flower as it sips nectar from inside. It’s just one of the hundreds of species of native bees here in Georgia.

Another Native bee, possibly a Leafcutter bee (I’m not an entomologist), feeding on nectar.

Another possible leafcutter bee: the whitish mat of hairs on the underside of it’s abdomen are used for collecting pollen.  Look closely to the right of the bee and you’ll see an ant sipping nectar as well.

Speaking of Ants, this Fire Ant also found it’s way up the 3 foot tall stalks for a sugary meal. Ants can be pollinators too, and they are responsible for dispersing the seeds of many spring blooming wildflowers such as Trillium and Bloodroot.

This Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) feeds on nectar as an adult, but like most wasps it hatched from an egg laid on another insect and fully consumed it before the metamorphosis into it’s current winged form.  Golden Digger Wasps are predators to Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets.

This Yellow Jacket adult enjoys sugary nectar, but its larvae need a more protein rich diet, which the adults supply by hunting other insects (many of which are agricultural pests).  Wasps are much maligned by humans, but without their predatory behavior we would be literally drowning in bugs and our crops would be decimated.

And finally, not everyone is there for the nectar! This is one of several clever lizards I’ve seen recently near blooming flowers lying in wait for some distracted pollinator to drift too close…..

Milkweed is for Monarchs, but after they have migrated north it’s for butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, ants, beetles, aphids, and even lizards.

Top Ten Native Plants for a Diverse and Beautiful Yard

This article originally appeared in the Wylde Center Fall 2015 Newsletter.

A short list cannot begin to describe the immense diversity and variation in the plant species and communities that evolved in what is now Georgia, USA. This list is just an attempt to get you to think about the plants that are in your yard and garden, where they came from, and what purpose(s) they serve. Landscaping can be beautiful AND provide food and shelter for wildlife.

In selecting these plants my criteria included: Native to Georgia, Number of caterpillar species hosted, Production of fruits/nuts for birds (and humans), Abundant flowers for pollinators (and humans), and cover/shelter for birds. The number of caterpillar species hosted is doubly important: Some lucky caterpillars get to grow up to be butterflies and moths that help pollinate flowers, but the vast majority of them are destined to be eaten by birds and other animals. Baby birds need large amounts of fat and protein to develop their brains and bodies just like baby humans, but unlike humans, birds cannot deliver these nutrients via milk. It takes lots and lots of caterpillars to raise a healthy bird to maturity. Each selection starts with a whole Genus of plants, and then narrows to one or two species that are endemic to the Piedmont. There are two reasons for this structure: The numbers for caterpillar species hosted* are expressed by genus, and if conditions in your yard will not support my selections then you can research the other members of the genus. The wide diversity of plants in the Southeast almost guarantees that there are other species in the genus that will find your yard delightful. Mindful selection of native plants for your yard helps to reunite a fragmented landscape into a larger community, and gives us all a sense of place in the land that we call home.

*All numbers cited for caterpillar species hosted come from Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s invaluable research that can be found on his website at

Wild Cherry – Prunus spp. Prunus_angustifolium_01
Wild Cherry, Chokecherry, Wild Plum, Black Cherry and Laurel Cherry are some of the common names given to the native members of this genus. It also includes the cultivars that give us our plums, cherries, almonds, apricots, and peaches. The native Prunus species host a whopping 429 different species of caterpillars! In addition to the caterpillar smorgasbord, the fruits are also an important food source for birds. Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia) is a small tree (15 to 25 feet at maturity) that has glossy dark green leaves and reddish-brown bark. Clusters of small white flowers bloom in early spring, which provides much-needed nectar for emerging native bees. The small ½” reddish-orange fruits ripen in the late summer. The fruits are usually a bit tart to our modern tastes, but have a long history as a food source for Native Americans, and were later used to make jams, jellies, and wine by colonists. If you have the space Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a full size tree (up to 100 feet) with the same early blooming white flowers. The fruits are small, but abundant, and also have a long history of use in jams and pies, and as a flavoring in many foods and beverages.

Blueberry – Vaccinium spp.

Blueberries should be very familiar to anyone that has spent even a single summer in Georgia. The Vaccinium genus also contains the species commonly known as: Bilberry, Huckleberry, Cranberry, Whortleberry, and Lignonberry. Its members host 286 species of caterpillar in addition to making those delicious berries. The creamy white bell-shaped flowers bloom early in the season providing nectar for bees, and have their own native specialist pollinator, the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, that utilizes “buzz pollination” to efficiently transfer pollen and increase berry production. The Southern ‘Rabbiteye’ Blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum or V. ashei) has numerous named cultivars selected to produce tasty berries if you can beat the birds. It does better in the Southeastern climate than the Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), which is a more northerly native, and also has numerous named cultivars. Cultivars are all essentially clones, so make sure to plant at least two different ones for good cross pollination and berry set. If you want a true native try the amusingly named Farkleberry (Vaccinium arborescens), for a large shrub with evergreen leaves and smaller, tart berries that birds will still readily eat.

Joe Pye Weed – Eutrochium/Eupatorium spp.**
Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is already a popular garden plant, especially with butterfly enthusiasts. It grows up to ten feet tall in ideal conditions (part shade, moist soils) and produces large rounded clusters of hundreds of tiny pink flowers. Every shape and size of pollinator will be on this plant at the height of its bloom in late summer. Another member of this genus that also attracts numerous and diverse pollinators is Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). It has a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans and later by colonists. Boneset is easily recognized by its large, fuzzy perfoliate leaves. The opposite pairs are joined at the bases, and the stem appears to perforate them. Rounded clusters of white to pinkish blooms top the stalks in late summer. Eupatorium hosts 40 species of caterpillars, provide abundant nectar for adult butterflies, and follow through with lots of seeds for songbirds.

**Thanks to DNA sequencing all of the plants that used to be in the Eupatorium genus are constantly being shuffled around a few genera, so I am treating these two interchangeably.

Sedges – Carex spp.
Sedges are very similar to grasses, and are in fact close cousins of the grass family. They tend to be shorter at maturity, have broader leaves, and prefer partly shady moist areas, whereas grasses tend to prefer drier, sunnier habitats. Sedges are very well suited for border plantings at the edges of walkways, flower beds, and around the bases of trees. Anywhere that one might consider planting the dreaded invasive Monkeygrass (Liriope spp.) is a spot that would be much better off with a group of sedges. Broadleaf Sedge (Carex platyphylla) has attractive silvery green leaves that form dense clumps 8-10” tall and put up spiky flower heads that develop into seeds for songbirds. Blue Wood Sedge (Carex flaccosperma) has blue-green leaves, is semi-evergreen, and blooms in early spring. Carex hosts 36 caterpillar species in stark contrast to Liriope’s zero.

(NATIVE) Honeysuckle – Lonicera spp.

Lonicera sempervirens
The sweet smelling and tasting Honeysuckle with the creamy white flowers that is most often associated with that word is actually highly invasive and originally native to Asia. Lonicera japonica was spread all over the world in the 19th century and is now on every continent except Antarctica. Please do not propagate this plant, despite the fact that many nurseries continue to sell it. Scarlet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is native to this country, and is a tree-safe vine that produces clusters of brilliant red tubular flowers in mid-spring. These flowers are an important nectar source for our resident and migratory hummingbirds. The foliage is semi-evergreen, and the plant roots easily at the nodes making it easy to grow and multiply. It can be trained onto a trellis or fence into a very attractive, cascading mass of dark green leaves and bright red blooms. Yellow Honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) is another US Native that is essentially the same as Scarlet Honeysuckle in all respects except flower color. Its yellow tubular flowers are also attractive to hummingbirds. The native Lonicera plants host 33 species of caterpillars.

Goldenrod – Solidago spp.

Goldenrod often gets a bad reputation by association. It blooms the same time as Ragweed, and frequently gets blamed by allergy sufferers as the cause of their congestion. Goldenrods are pollinated by insects, and as such do not release clouds of pollen into the air like Ragweed. The beautiful yellow flowers are a favorite of many pollinators when they bloom in late summer as most other flowers have faded. In addition to beautiful, nectar bearing flowers goldenrods host 112 species of caterpillars. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) is a low-growing set of leaves for most of the year until it sprouts a 3-4 foot tall stem in late summer that is covered in hundreds of tiny yellow flowers. The small seeds that follow the blooms are readily consumed by birds. Wrinkleleaf Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) is a slowly spreading, rhizomatous, colony-forming plant that has deep green leaves with toothed margins. The low-growing rosettes of leaves put up stalks lined with small yellow flowers in late summer that are followed by abundant seeds.

Hawthorn – Crataegus spp.

Hawthorns are large, thicket forming, woody shrubs in the Rose family. As with roses, they have beautiful flowers and large thorns. A thorny hedge is a great way to deter a nosy neighbor, and it makes ideal cover for nesting birds. Hawthorns flower in early spring, which makes them another important nectar and pollen source for native bees, they produce edible fruits, and host an impressive 150 different species of caterpillars. Yellow Hawthorn (Crataegus flava) is a drought tolerant small tree/ large shrub with clusters of bright white flowers in early Spring, yellow fruits in Summer, and beautiful foliage in Autumn. Parsley Leaf Hawthorn (Crataegus marshalii) is a multi-stemmed upright shrub with small, deeply incised leaves that resemble parsley leaves. Small white flowers are followed by bright red fruits that persist on the plant to become winter bird forage. It does well in average to dry soils and part shade.

Arrowwood – Viburnum spp.
Viburnums are very popular with landscapers and developers. Low water needs, tolerant of many soils, attractive glossy foliage, beautiful flowers, autumn colors: They knock it out of the park. Unfortunately, many of the varieties that are in the nursery trade are either from Asia, or have been hybridized with Asian species. This has made for some very interesting looking cultivars, but there is scant research on whether or not the 97 species of caterpillars that feed on native Viburnum leaves can fully utilize these non-native plants. Best to err on the side of caution on behalf of the caterpillars and plant a native that will also produce viable seeds for the birds to spread around. Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerfolium) is a great shrub to grow in the filtered shade of a large tree. It spouts multiple 3-5 foot tall stems lined with large opposite pairs of deep green leaves that are easily mistaken for Maple leaves. Rounded clusters of small white flowers bloom through the spring, and are followed by pea-sized blue-black fruits that birds will devour just as quickly as blueberries. The leaves put on a spectacular color show in autumn shifting through yellow, orange, red and then purplish hues before they drop for the winter. A larger specimen is Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) which is a thicket forming large shrub/small tree that grows 10-20 feet tall. The young leaves are covered in fine red hairs that give them a “rusty” appearance, and they also turn brilliant colors in the fall. It does best in average to dry soils and full sun to part shade.

Asters – Symphyotrichium spp.

Asters are one of the largest plant families encompassing over 1600 genera of closely related plants with very similar looking flowers including Sunflowers, Daisies, Coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, and many, many more. The members of the Symphyotrichium genus tend to be named “(Person/Place/Adjective) Aster.” Georgia Aster (Symphyotrichium georgianum) should be our state flower. It is a drought tolerant rosette of low-growing leaves for most of the year, but starting in September a 3-4 foot tall branching stalk of blooms emerges. The abundant 2” flowers have deep purple petals with purplish-white centers that often continue to bloom through October into November making it a great source of late season nectar and pollen. Another late bloomer that is also inconspicuous until it flowers is Calico Aster (Symphyotrichium lateriflorum). Its 2-4 foot tall bloom stalk is covered with hundreds of small white flowers with yellow centers that fade to brown as they age. The blooms continue to emerge through November or until they are killed back by frost.

Dog Day Blooms

It’s HOT.  We’ve had some good thundershowers recently, so it’s not a drought at least.  Next week’s forecast of mid-90’s highs every day with little chance of rain means you should probably water your shrubs a bit this weekend.  Our potted plants at the farm are being watered twice daily.

The spring bloomers are looking pretty ragged at this point as they seem to just shrivel under the weight of the hot air, but the summer and fall bloomers have put on some robust growth and beautiful flowers.  I hope you have a minute, there’s lots of pretty pictures:IMG_5229

 First, a Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) bloom in the greenhouse with an Agapostemon bee on it.  There are lots of species in that genus, but they are all commonly known as ‘sweat bees.’  One of our many native ground-nesting bees, there have been several in the greenhouse for the past week or two.  There is a lot of open, parched ground around the greenhouse’s compacted clay foundation and that just happens to be just what ground nesting bees look for in real estate. 

Out in the nursery another Lobelia is also blooming:IMG_5246

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is gorgeous as usual. IMG_5244

 A Phlox species that we think might be Phlox maculatum? 


Large Flowered Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora) blooming in pots! This plant looks like a marigold on steroids in the ground, but always did poorly in pots until I stuck them on the highest, driest, sunniest spot in the nursery.IMG_5237

 Family resemblance of the day: Joe Pye and Boneset.  These both used to be in the same genus (Eupatorium) until recently, but are both still in the family Asteraceae (subfamily Asteroideae, supertribe Helianthodae, tribe Eupatorieae……there are A LOT of Asters).  Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) on the left has pinkish flowers, and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)  on the right has white blooms.

IMG_5236Spotted Horse Mint (Monarda punctata) isn’t even technically blooming yet and is already eye-catching.  The flowers are those little green parts clustered around the stem, the seemingly painted-on colors are modified leaf-like bracts. 

All of the previous pictures are of flowers formed by plants in pots.  If you were to install them in your yard they would be twice as big (at least), more floriferous, and you’d get to walk past them every day.

IMG_5266  Out in the propagation beds you can see what I mean. Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) with hundreds of blooms as opposed to the ones in pots with only a dozen or so.


Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) is also loving the heat.


 Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata) does have some of the most unique blooms you’ll find this far away from the Equator, and it makes little edible fruits commonly known as Maypops. You can see one forming on the left.IMG_5162

Finally, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  It really is a workhorse of a pollinator plant.  I tried to focus in on the tiny individual flowers in between the spikes.  Those little dark tubes with the yellow star-like stamens sticking out are the fertile flowers that the bees and butterflies want. IMG_5152

 It’s like a giant counter full of delicious smoothies, and you have a built in straw. Also, it’s guarded by massive spikes to keep those pesky mammals from just eating the whole thing.  Echino- is the Latin for “spiny; prickly.” Sea Urchins and Star Fish are “Echinoderms.”  IMG_5254

 Despite being larger than the whole flower head this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (as well as most other butterflies) has a very long, thin, retractable, tube-like tongue which it methodically moves from each tiny flower to the next to extract the nectar.


 Trying to get these two guys in the same frame took a minute.  They don’t like sudden movements.


 I think that this is a female Tiger Swallowtail, so we should have plenty of caterpillars soon!

What’s Blooming Now, and Protecting a Rare Find

With the heat and humidity trading punches it’s very apparent that summer is upon us.  As usual, the plants are loving life, so here’s some pretty pictures of their blooms:

IMG_5036Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

IMG_5035Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera)


  Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)

Those were all in pots in the nursery.  From there I wandered through our propagation beds….IMG_4991

 Evening Primrose (Oenethera fruticosa (ssp. subglosa)) in the East Pasture


 New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) also likes the abundant sun and scarce water in the East Pasture.IMG_4990

 As does Goat Rue (Tephrosia virginiana). IMG_5005

Down in the Valley I found Anglepod or Milkvine (Matelea gonocarpos).  I love the pentagon in the center.  Compare to:IMG_5033

Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in our front bed. Flowers with parts of five.  Both make angular seed pods.  Both in the Dogbane Family (Apocynaceae).

The rare find came as I was wandering through the valley getting azalea cuttings.  I turned around and all of a sudden:

IMG_5006Fire Pink (Silene virginica) ! We have been trying to find someone with a legitimately local Piedmont genotype for a while, and all along it was right here at Beech Hollow.  We couldn’t see it because the deer are quite fond of eating anything with a flower stalk down to the ground. Long live coyotes, cougars and wolves.  Anyway, fertile seeds are hard to come by from this species, so we knew we had to protect the 6-8 flowering plants I found.  We returned to the valley with the appropriate fencing and tools.

IMG_5014Cages were 4

Wooden stakes will hopefully hold the cages down even if overzealous deer try to move them.IMG_5019

 Pointy (soon with rusty tips!) “discouragement.”IMG_5021

Fingers crossed for fertile seed!

Scutellaria: The Exploding Skullcaps

The genus Scutellaria is composed of over 300 species that occur all around the world.  It’s in the mint family, so it has the characteristic square stem and recursive leaf veins that are so common among mints.  The latin name means “little dish” and refers to the covering of the calyx, which I guess if you look at it from the right angle resembles a small plate or bowl.  I prefer the common name, “Skullcap,” it just sounds cool.  It refers to the fact that the flowers resemble helmets worn by medieval soldiers.   Scutt_nerv

 We have 2 of these species in cultivation at Beech Hollow at the moment.  One has pink flowers, Scutellaria nervosa (above), while the other has blue flowers, Scutellaria incana (below).  Scutt_incana

Regardless of flower color, after the blooms fade another interesting phenomenon occurs. The seed pod forms where that “little plate” is located at the base of the flower.  The pod has two parts with a seam running all the way around it.  It starts green, but as it matures it fades to a brown color and as the pod dries out it begins to contract.  Eventually this leads to a breaking point and the pod splits along that seam and ejects the seeds, often sending them several feet from the parent plant.


 These upper pods are about ready to pop. It’s a little easier to see the “little dish” in this picture.  We joke about Scutellaria being an invasive species in the nursery because any other pots within about 5 feet of them will end up with Scutellaria seedlings in it.  Despite their prolific seed production and dispersal, I have only seen a few of these plants in the wild.  The plants in this genus are said to have sedative and anti-anxiety properties, and a Chinese cousin, Scutellaria baicalensis, has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine.  With such pretty flowers and possible health benefits this plant needs to be more common in the landscape.  And the bumblebees love it too!