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.

Spring at last!

Honeybee on Butterflyweed.

Honeybee on Butterflyweed.

Has no Milk.              Is not a Weed.

Clasping Leaf Milkweed.

Clasping Leaf Milkweed.








But it is what Monarchs need. 

This weekend, May 21 & 22,  we will bring Milkweeds for your Monarchs into Atlanta.  Pink Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata; Poke Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata; Butterflyweed (just a couple of these); and a couple Clasping Leaf Milkweed, Asclepias amplexicaulis.

We will also have a variety of other native plants and shrubs in bloom and out. Shade blooming species, Georgia Prairie species, and interesting shrubs for butterfly larva support and habitat gardening.

Visit us from 9-5 at 393 North Clarendon Avenue, Scottdale, GA 30079.

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.

Caterpillars Are Eating My Plants…..and I’m OK With That.

As Summer is upon us, and with a wet spring for encouragement, all of our plants are making verdant new growth. I add fertilizer to the equation to coax even larger, more luscious foliage and flowers from them. This is a common practice in most forms of agriculture and gardening, so most people should have learned by now that all that new growth is a nutrient-dense, tender, food source. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised when insects show up to fill their bellies and feed their offspring. Some insects can be devastating to plants: devouring the foliage, spreading fungal or bacterial diseases, eating the roots, or, something we especially despise here at BHF, eating the seed pods before they can develop. Milkweed Bugs, Leafcutters, Grasshoppers, Lacewings, and Mealybugs all have challenged my patience and devotion to organic practices on more than one occasion. As much as the previous insects fill me with consternation, there is one group of leaf munching insects that I greet with amusement and curiosity: Caterpillars.

Lerema accius
Like this one that was hiding in the base of a rolled up leaf of River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Many caterpillars feed at night and then spend the day hiding in a rolled up leaf, or clinging to plant’s stem hoping to avoid detection by birds and the numerous other predators that would eat them. Part of the fun of finding them is that they are trying very hard not to be found, so it’s usually a surprise. The other fun part is trying to identify the species and see what sort of butterfly or moth it will become. I’m pretty sure this one is a Clouded Skipper which feeds on various broad leaf grasses.

This one is going to grow up to be a moth: a Gray Half Spot to be exact. It is a more specialized species in that it only feeds on St John’s Wort (Hypericum spp.), and has developed adaptations to blend in with those plants. The bark of St John’s Wort has a dark reddish/burgundy coloring, and so does this caterpillar hiding in plain sight on a stem of Cedarglade St John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum) seedling. I especially like finding specialists like this one because they are so exacting in their food requirements that they are almost by definition less common than their generalist cousins.

Speaking of specialist caterpillars, here is their charismatic poster child: The Monarch. Their food source is Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), a plant that is toxic to most other creatures. Compounds in the sap called cardiac glycosides will disrupt the heartbeat and possibly stop the heart altogether if too much of the plant is consumed. Monarch caterpillars and butterflies have evolved immunity to the effects of the plant’s defenses, and also incorporate the toxic compounds into their bodies which discourages predation by birds. This evolutionary strategy of eating toxic plants and utilizing their chemical defenses is shared by several other species of caterpillars including Pipevine Swallowtails, Ornate Moths, and Cinnabar Moths.

Here’s a few that are eating a non-toxic plant: the apple tree in my front yard. This is where the “I’m OK with it” can be put to the test. No one tends to care if caterpillars are eating the toxic weeds on the wayside, but when they start moving in on plants we wanted to eat, well, they might have to go. I am OK though because I know that they aren’t going to do any long term damage to the tree, especially since they are most likely going to get picked off by birds before they get a chance to spin cocoons. Each caterpillar only needs a few leaves from the plant to reach adulthood, and in this specific instance I don’t even want the leaves; I want apples. Also, this tree is not even old enough to make apples yet, so for the time being it’s just making caterpillar food. Apple and Crabapple trees (Malus spp.) host over 300 species of caterpillars, so it’s doing a great job of that, and still has plenty of leaves and continues to shoot upward.

This one isn’t a caterpillar at all. It just looks and acts like one. It is a Sawfly larva of the genus Macrophya. It took me a good bit of searching to figure that out because I was operating under the assumption that it was a caterpillar. Sawflies, like butterflies, lay their eggs on specific host plants, and this one uses Elderberry (Sambucus spp.). Interesting to note that Elderberry leaves and stems are toxic, so it looks like these sawflies have similarly adapted an immunity and utilization strategy like the Monarchs.

Caterpillars are critical links in the food web. They facilitate the last leg of the transformation of the sun’s energy into protein. Protein that is a critical food source for many other animals, especially when they are young and growing rapidly. A few tattered leaves on our ornamental plants are a small price to pay to ensure the proper development and survival of a clutch of baby birds. The lucky caterpillars that do escape predation and become butterflies or moths will pollinate the same plants that sustained them as larvae (and many others!), thus ensuring a new generation of plants to keep the circle rolling right along just as it has for millions of years.

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!

Communities, Guilds and Modules: Grouping Plants

When explaining the need for native plants in the landscape we often talk about the need for a constant supply of food, namely blooming flowers, for pollinators, and how planting groups of plants with successive bloom times throughout the year will ensure that your pollinators always have plenty to eat.  It requires a bit of forethought and research (or just ask us), but the rewards are flowers and bees/butterflies/birds in your yard all year.  That sort of long term planning is also useful when thinking about your the physical setting where you want to put your plants (i.e. your yard).
Beech trees thrive in moist bottom lands. Have you ever seen one on a hilltop?

Beech trees thrive in moist bottom lands. They would not last long on a dry hilltop.

 Botanists refer to naturally occurring groups of different plant species as ‘communities;’ and there are LOTS of them.  The Natural Communities of Georgia is a massive 700 page book that exquisitely details the plant species that occur in each little environmental  variation of a given area in Georgia.  It just came out last year, and at $60 it’s a steal.  If you REALLY want to get to know the flora of the land you inhabit, this is THE reference you need.  Digression aside, there are many, many combinations of plants that naturally occur together.  The particular mix of geology, slope, aspect, moisture, light, wildfire, animals, and many other variables that make up a landscape determine what plants are able to survive and thrive there.
Trillium and Bloodroot also thrive in moist bottom lands. They bloom early in the year before the Beeches unfurl their leaves.

Trillium and Bloodroot also thrive in moist bottom lands. They bloom early in the year before the Beeches unfurl their leaves and cast a deep shade.

 When we introduce the human decision making process to the equation with the question “What shall I plant?” we can all take a lesson from nature.  By studying communities one can learn much about how every niche can be filled with a plant. Permaculturists such as Bill Mollison and Toby Hemenway have popularized the concepts of ‘guilds’ and ‘plant stacking’ to describe attempts to emulate natural communities and succession processes with human plantings.  The guild is basically a radial planting pattern with a central focal point, most often a tree or large woody shrub.
Midwest Permaculture has an awesome e-booklet (.pdf) available for free that explains this concept way better than I can with fancy graphics and examples of guilds for many different species of tree.  The Oak guild (pg. 13) should be of interest to most people in the Piedmont.
Plant stacking refers to the use of vertical space through time.  In a mature guild you would have your (top to bottom) canopy trees, midstory or sub-canopy trees, understory trees, woody shrubs, and the herbaceous ground layer.  This space also moves through cyclical time each day and year, with the daily and seasonal weather variations offering dynamic microclimates for a diverse collection of plants.  But we don’t all have mature trees just ready and waiting for those spring bulbs underneath.  If you start with a four foot tall oak sapling (or an acorn!) you can maximize the space by planting a fast growing, short-lived tree or shrub that will also help shield the young oak from wind and harsh temperature changes.
 Pictured above are a few of the layers in a mature Oak-Hickory-Pine canopy in an Atlanta park.  Ground layer, top left, is covered with Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) and Greenbrier (Smilax sp.) among others; Shrub layer, top right, has an Oak-Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); Understory has a Flowering Dogwood (Cornus floridus) beneath an Oak; the midstory and canopy are occupied by a mix of Hickory (Carya sp.), Oak (Quercus sp.), Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Pine (Pinus sp.) and Magnolia (Magnolia sp.).
So, finally we arrive at the Modules.  This is a concept from Douglas Tallamy.  Modules are guilds of native plants that can be thought of as interconnecting “modular” units. They can repeat or interlock with other guilds by using the same edge species (understory trees most often).  It’s a great way to start visualizing just how we can start to restore native plants in the landscape one unit at a time.  Mr. Tallamy’s examples of modules will help (.pdf)
Tallamy hits the nail on the head in the first paragraph:  “Many people who have decided to rebuild native plant communities in their yards become quickly overwhelmed with the decisions that have to be made when it comes to selecting plants. For any given locality there are often dozens of possibilities; which ones are best? Which species work well together? Which are available in local nurseries?”
We’re trying really hard to answer that last question.  I hope that all this information has got you asking some questions of your own such as: “Is there room for a fruiting understory tree in my canopy?” or “What is a good shrub layer for the dry, shady hillside out back?”
Here are a few more references to boot:

Feast your eyes: Hepatica acutiloba

Heart Leaf Liverwort (Hepatica acutiloba) is a spring blooming woodland ephemeral.  Mottled leaves, beautiful flowers, oIMG_4486atherworldly seed capsules; this plant has it all. IMG_4544a  IMG_4753a IMG_4757a IMG_4758a

















































The seed capsules remind me of some of the aliens in Metroid. They will burst soon and unleash a legion of tiny individuals thirsty for organic matter……..

Bursting with Berries


A member of the mint family, Beauty Berries add a note of unusual and lovely color to our landscape.

Our southeastern habitats offer some amazing and strange fruits. We have berries of all colors in the fall, from the florescent mauve of the American Beauty Berry (on the right) to the alien-looking hot-magenta and burnt orange Heart’s-a-Busting (below left.)  After a muggy summer filled with a hospitable Southern-Style helping of insects and various fruits and seeds, the larder is far from bare for our winged friends if you were to plant one or two or more of these wonderful shrubs in the understory of your yard.  Have you heard the deafening chatter outside in the trees and in our parks over the past few weeks?  You may have a migratory flock passing through your neighborhood.  Question is, are there any groceries for them to nibble on?


A plate full of Heart’s-a-Busting waiting to be cleaned for seeds.



A deciduous holly species, Ilex decidua.



A bowl full of Red Chokeberries, awaiting fermenting, cleaning and sowing.

North American warbler species and other migratory birds heading south as well as the resident populations that overwinter in the Georgia Piedmont rely on the late berries from our subcanopy shrubs.  The berries of some shrubs, like the Heart’s-a-Busting, the Sparkleberry, and our deciduous Hollies, are voraciously consumed on the way down to the winter’s tropical hangouts.  Berries that are not consumed immediately, but hang around throughout the winter are called winter persistent.  These berries seem to need a bit of aging in the cold weather (or hunger) to be palatable.  Beauty Berry seems to fall into this category.  Other berries, such as the scarlet Red Chokeberry,  seem to be ignored until the trip back north in the spring.  The gorgeous Red Chokeberries in my side yard delight me all winter long until the Cedar Waxwings come through in the spring.  Then the berries disappear in an hour’s time.



How to Put a Plant in the Ground

Sounds easy, but it has come to my attention recently that some people don’t have as much experience playing in the dirt as I do. As such, I thought a planting tutorial might be in order.  Nothing takes the place of experience, so don’t be afraid to get out there and put some plants in the ground and you’ll keep getting better at it. The next 2 months are perfect time to practice!

First, you’ll need to gather a few tools:IMG_3992

 A shovel (I have a small and a big one), gloves are always a good idea, a plant (preferably native!), a source of water, and a bucket or tarp to hold the soil you remove (optional, but it helps for when you are refilling the hole).

Having the right tools is important, but picking the right planting site is absolutely critical.  “Right plant in the right place” is a common saying among plant people,  and we’ve adopted it as a mantra of sorts for helping people when they are choosing plants to purchase.IMG_3993

 I’m planting a False Aloe (Manfreda virginica) next to two others I planted last year.  This is a slightly sloping, well-drained area that gets about 2-3 hours of direct sun per day when the Oak canopy above is leafed out.  There are a number of native woodland plants that would thrive in this environment because they are well adapted to living on a forest floor.IMG_3994

Now that we have our site picked out it’s time to remove the duff (layer of leaves, etc.) on top of the soil.  I’m going to pause right here to issue a stern warning.  You need to be certain that there are no power, water or gas lines under your planting site.  This area is in my backyard, so none of those things extend beyond the house.  I accidentally “discovered” that my gas line is only about 6 inches below the surface when I was planting shrubs in my front yard last year.  It’s a costly and dangerous mistake that you don’t wanna make.  If you have any doubts as to the presence of underground utilities at your planting site CALL 811 and find out for sure!  If you are certain you aren’t going to sever your gas line, we can now proceed to digging.IMG_3997

Using a shovel is fairly straightforward, but I have noticed at several plantings with volunteers that not everyone uses them efficiently.  Use your body weight and leg muscles to lean on/push the shovel blade with your foot.  I’ve kicked and jumped up and down on shovels many times to break up clay soils.  Your legs and weight will help the shovel penetrate the ground far easier and more efficiently than your arms can, no matter how big your biceps might be. IMG_3999 

The soil is out and in the bucket, and as you can see it’s almost 100% Georgia red clay.  I jumped on the shovel several times to get this hole this deep.  Clayey soils are OK as long as there is at least a thin layer of topsoil above them for the plant to take root in, but since it is almost straight clay I’m going to add a little soil amendment. IMG_4000

In the bottom of the hole I put some Mister Natural ® Complete Landscape Mix (CLM).  It’s a mixture of compost, worm castings and permatill that will aid the plant’s ability to take root and penetrate the clay, and it will help with drainage.  It’s made right here in Georgia too. Now to double check that the hole is deep enough….IMG_4001

Put the pot in, and if the soil level in the pot is even with the top of the hole you’ve gone far enough. You want the crown of the plant (the part where the stem meets the roots) right at ground level, or maybe even a little above it. We’re almost ready to put the plant in the hole. But first:IMG_4003

 Time for another stern warning: DO NOT PULL A PLANT OUT OF A POT BY THE STEM/LEAVES! You will damage or possibly kill it by tearing the shoots from the roots. Instead, put your fingers on either side of the crown, like so:IMG_4007

Invert the pot, like so:IMG_4004

Squeeze the sides of the pot a bit to loosen up the root ball and help it release the pot, and then gently pull the pot upward off the root ball, like so:IMG_4008

 It’s that easy. With larger round containers you can lay them on their side and roll them back and forth while pushing down on the pot lightly to help loosen the root ball. Next, you’re going to want to loosen up the roots.  Many plants from nurseries (including ours more often than not) are root bound, and have long since outgrown their containers.  The roots circle around and around and form a dense mass.  If left like that, the roots will still “think” that they are in the container with no place to go.  You need to let them know they can spread out (finally!) and stimulate them to grow.  As Lauren says, “You need to tickle the roots.”  Tease the roots out of the soil by gently rubbing them until they are sticking out on all the edges.  In extreme cases of pot bound plants it may be necessary to cut or score the sides of the root ball with a blade to get them to separate. This one isn’t too bad, so a bit of “tickling” will do.

IMG_4009 Now, put the plant in the ground, like so:IMG_4010

Oops! It’s a little too deep now that the root ball has spread out.  Never fear, just add some soil to the bottom of the hole until the plant crown is at the right height.


 Now try again.IMG_4012

 You can test it by using your hand as a level on the edge of the hole. Looks good, so it’s time to back fill.  Sprinkle the dirt you removed earlier evenly around the plant and over the roots.  Break up any large dirt clods and refill the hole back to the level of the surrounding ground.IMG_4014

 Pat the soil down into the hole until it’s firm.  As soon as possible add water:


This is a crucial step.  The water helps to compact the soil back down into the hole, but it also makes the soil and the plant roots touch at the molecular level.  Until I watered, the roots and the soil were not in contact (microscopically speaking).  In order for plants to take up nutrients through their roots, they must be in contact with the soil, and water flowing downward through the ground is the main way in which this process is facilitated. IMG_4016

Now that our plant is all watered in we can replace the duff.  This will help prevent erosion and retain soil moisture, as well as cover up the dirt and make it look nice and pretty. IMG_4018

 Voila! A happy new addition to my “dry shade” planting area.   I hope that this removes any doubts you might have had about your gardening abilities and inspires you to go out an get planting!

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!