The Clouds of Pycnanthemum

“Is this thyme?!?”, I remember my teenage mind questioning at the sight of foliage that resembled the herb.  It was March, and I was rummaging through the fencerows near our house looking for wildflowers on a cloudy day that couldn’t decide if it was winter or spring.  Per usual, nothing much was to be seen since I lived in the avoidance zone, but my blitheful, naive self still held out hope I might find something in the leaf litter.  

And, here it was.  I knew enough about herbs to cue in on the small, elongated leaves stooping down.  The foliage looked a bit more pointed than the mother of thyme clump I had back home, but I crushed some, and it released a spicy menthol smell supporting my teenage hypothesis.  “Wow, I’ve discovered thyme from some old homeplace,” I said to the forest around me.

Looking back on the whole experience now, I chuckle.  I didn’t know about Occam’s razor then.  Nor, did I pause to critique my thinking with questions like how has thyme survived in this underbrush, or how has it not spread out and taken over creation?

No, back then I knew thyme wasn’t native to the US; therefore, I assumed someone planted it here.  It still had its low winter foliage just like the herb in my garden. 

So, I transplanted it home and nurtured it.  And, then it started to grow. And grow and grow and grow until it was over two feet tall.  This plant was not thyme! I went through a wildflower book I had and found a match in the Lamiaceae section—Pycnanthemum tenuifolium

Pycnanthemum tenuifolium  flowering  en masse .

Pycnanthemum tenuifolium flowering en masse.

Narrow-leaf mountain mint is currently blooming in my garden, and seeing it flourish was a fun reminder that I make mistakes and learn from them.  Sometimes when we are wrong, it turns out better than we could have imagined! Some fifteen years ago in my teenage years I didn’t realize what I had discovered—one of the best native perennials for pollinators and other insects. 

I’ll go ahead and address the white elephant (or, should I say white-flowering herb!) in the room.  Yes, as a “mint” it can spread some, but I’ve never had the issues with it that I’ve had with other Pycnanthemum or Mentha species.  I see having more of it as a good thing.  Even with its vigor, I lost the clump I found along the roadside.  But, a few years ago, I began to hunt for plants for creating floras.  I knew where Pycnanthemum was; therefore, I decided to saunter back along the same fence row in search of it.  After a few hours, I found one inflorescence.  I collected a piece from that Tennessee plant and some seed, and this germplasm became the basis for our plants that we use on campus.   Years later, I would find local Texas ecotypes on the road.  Both are blooming now in my garden and offer so much.  

A haze of  Pycnanthemum tenuifolium  flowers over a perennial planting at my house.

A haze of Pycnanthemum tenuifolium flowers over a perennial planting at my house.

The fine-textured foliage emerges in tight columns rising upward.  In bud the plant makes me think of the constellation Crux, or the southern cross, for the haphazard dots that attempt to form perpendicular lines.  After flowering I enjoy seeing the seedheads that persist well into winter.  

X marks the spot on  Pycnanthemum tenuifolium . Since the inflorescences are cymes, that character likely generates this interesting floral architecture.

X marks the spot on Pycnanthemum tenuifolium. Since the inflorescences are cymes, that character likely generates this interesting floral architecture.

But, the flowers are the pinnacle attribute of this plant.  The blooms remind me of stratus.  Instead of countless moisture particles composing a flat, gray-white cloud that blankets the earth, here hundreds of mithril-colored flowers form sheets that hover over the foliage.  These dense flowers are the origin of the name Pycnanthemum (pycn- means dense, and -anthemum refers to the flowers).

And, the insects that flock to this all-you-can-eat-buffet is astounding—bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and more that I’m missing.  Research has shown Pycnanthemum tenuifolium to be a great niche for beneficial insects from providing resources for native bees to creating habitat for predators and parasitoids.   I’ve observed that the plant buzzes most with activity in the middle of the day.  I have plants near each other to accentuate their seasonality, and for the pollinators it makes cloud hopping even easier.  

A    zebra swallowtail    waddling through the flowers on  Pycnanthemum tenuifolium . Yes, I know you can’t see motion in this still picture, but trust me. It waddled.

A zebra swallowtail waddling through the flowers on Pycnanthemum tenuifolium. Yes, I know you can’t see motion in this still picture, but trust me. It waddled.

A giant swallowtail probed  Pycnanthemum tenuifolium  flowers.

A giant swallowtail probed Pycnanthemum tenuifolium flowers.

The other day I took advantage of an overcast sky to take photos of my narrow-leaf mountain mint.   I smiled at the similarity of seeing the dark insects dart amongst the silvery-white flowers and how they resembled the shadows of birds circling above me in a broken, gray altostratus sky.  Both looking for food and both trying to live.  This national pollinator week, I recommend planting this perennial in abundance in the garden so that you, too, can have a richer life and enjoy the clouds of Pycnanthemum and all the life that comes with it.  

Delphinium carolinianum, Rock Candy for the Garden

Delphinium carolinianum (Carolina larkspur) is flowering in my garden.  Since seeing it in Texas, it has scurried to the top of my list of favorite wildflowers.  The native stands out with unique form and color—lines of electric blue that pierce the hurly-burly of the prairie.  To me it looks like rock candy. You know, the kind that you used to eat as a kid where sugar crystals surrounded a wooden stick?  I ate it up then, and I’m eating this flower up, now.  Currently, the colors I have in bloom are the prominent rich blueberry and fewer of the light raspberry and soft grape.

Delphinium carolinianum  flowers are such a stark yet cheerful blue to see against the greens and golds typically seen in grasslands.

Delphinium carolinianum flowers are such a stark yet cheerful blue to see against the greens and golds typically seen in grasslands.

It wasn’t on the property when we arrived.  I’ve been collecting seed from local populations, and it’s thrilling to watch plants I started from seed erupt into bloom.  As the rachis elongates, it slightly sinews from node to node, each bend a place for an immature flower. As the buds develop, the long nectary starts resembling a horn, and upon unfurling I see the spur becoming a beak of a Belted Kingfisher; the flared petals to the sides are the wings and the two pointing down the tail.  

It has taken two years to get the plants from seed to flower.  I made the mistake of sowing the seed my first fall here before I learned how the winter shadows moved in our new garden. The spot received little sun.  The seedlings struggled, and I thought all was lost when they vanished last spring.  Imagine my delight when I found the little dissected leaves breaking ground last fall!  

Before the cold set in, I relocated the plants to sunnier spots.  Now, I and the fauna of my garden have been rewarded this year with blooms.  I’ve watched the inflorescences sway from probing by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds by day and hummingbird moths by night.

But, this larkspur does have an ephemeral nature.  Soon, the rock candy will dissolve with the heat of summer, leaving only seed behind.  But, I will collect them, coax the seedlings along, and hope for an even sweeter show in years to come.  

Pick your flavor. The classic vibrant blue, …

Pick your flavor. The classic vibrant blue, …

soft purple, …

soft purple, …

or, a light periwinkle. Or, do what I do.  Collect seed and you may end up with all three.

or, a light periwinkle. Or, do what I do. Collect seed and you may end up with all three.

Bogs and Baygalls

This post is the second part of our May field trip to see interesting flora of Texas with Peter Loos. To read the first post, click here (Stewartia malacodendron and more).

After leaving Little Cow Creek, we headed back west, grabbed food to go at Hamburger Depot, and crossed Lake Sam Rayburn to continue our herbaceous plant explorations.  Peter Loos took us deep into the Angelina National Forest to see a carnivorous plant bog he has been restoring from too much erosion.  We bounced in the van on an obscure backroad as the students finished their lunches. Juvenile longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) that had avoided tires and blades marked the drive with their dense, grassy crowns that resembled marking whiskers more than baby plants.

At the end of the trail was a gate and an opportunity for me as the driver to finally eat a bite. On the other side of the barrier we could see hundreds of Sarracenia alata visible even before we exited the van. As I scarfed down my burger and fries, I chuckled at the irony of eating food in the presence of plants that could digest, too. The pale pitcher plant is the only Sarracenia native to Texas, and seeing them in the wild certainly piqued my interest in growing them.  We saw other bog cohorts including Pogonia, Eriocaulon, and Utricularia mixed in with the pitcher plants, and woody shrubs like Rhododendron oblongifolium and Eubotrys (Leucothoe) racemosa flanked either side of the trail.  

 
Sarracenia alata  growing well on either side of the path. On the right you can see where some erosion has occurred.

Sarracenia alata growing well on either side of the path. On the right you can see where some erosion has occurred.

 
A closeup of the flowers of  Sarracenia alata

A closeup of the flowers of Sarracenia alata

Students were elated to find  Sarracenia alata !

Students were elated to find Sarracenia alata!

 
Pogonia ophioglossoides  bloomed right alongside the pitcher plants.

Pogonia ophioglossoides bloomed right alongside the pitcher plants.

 
The lollypop flowers of a  Eriocaulon  species.

The lollypop flowers of a Eriocaulon species.

Rhododendron oblongifolium  was in flower at the edge of the bog.

Rhododendron oblongifolium was in flower at the edge of the bog.

From the bog we drove through pine forest whose understory was covered with bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and south-facing slopes along the road were dotted with goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana).

We arrived at the last stop of the day, a baygall.  Baygalls are habitats in the southeast where springs and seeps keep the soil moist. Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) tends to be a dominate woody species.

The habitat of a baygall. The understory looks lush from the abundance of  Osmundastrum cinnamomeum  or cinnamon fern.

The habitat of a baygall. The understory looks lush from the abundance of Osmundastrum cinnamomeum or cinnamon fern.

Here we saw rare plants including Trillium texanum seedlings.  We didn’t see any with residual flowers or seed heads.  Peter commented that populations have been disturbed by boars. 

Juvenile  Trillium texanum

Juvenile Trillium texanum

There was also a naturally occurring fernery.  Here cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum), royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis), and netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata) intermingled to form a lush fern gully.  Seeing them together gave me ideas of how to combine them here in the south.

So much green in this fernery!

So much green in this fernery!

Exiting the woods Peter pointed out a rare coneflower, Rudbeckia scabrifolia. It only occurs in a few counties in Texas and Louisiana.

Rudbeckia scabrifolia  is in the right corner of this photo. You can see last year’s inflorescence still standing.

Rudbeckia scabrifolia is in the right corner of this photo. You can see last year’s inflorescence still standing.

Overall, it was a great trip showing students several diverse habitats that occur in east Texas along with some rare plants here in the Lone Star State.  

Stewartia malacodendron and More at Little Cow Creek

Tuesday May 8th was incredible for exploring the wilds of east Texas.  My herbaceous plants class joined Peter Loos to see rare and unusual plants near Lake Sam Rayburn.

Students listen to Peter Loos talk about his plant explorations at Little Cow Creek.

Students listen to Peter Loos talk about his plant explorations at Little Cow Creek.

One target species for the day was Stewartia malacodendron near Little Cow Creek, a refugia that allows this Theaceae member’s survival in Texas.  We found the plant in peak bloom, the bright solitary flowers glowing on the forest edge only a short distance from the stream.   Closer inspection revealed dark purple stamens resting at the center of a white platter of petals.  The forms we saw were shorter and more shrub-like than most Stewartia I’ve encountered.  On one plant the branches were almost hugging the ground.  It deserves to be planted more.  I collected some cuttings in the hope of encouraging that.  Peter mentioned they were difficult to root, but some colleagues shared some practices with me that might enhance the propagules’ survival.  

Here I’m shooting down at this hanging branch on  Stewartia malacodendron .

Here I’m shooting down at this hanging branch on Stewartia malacodendron.

A close up of the delicate flowers of  Stewartia malacodendron . Notice the maroon filaments of the stamens.

A close up of the delicate flowers of Stewartia malacodendron. Notice the maroon filaments of the stamens.

The ruffled petal edges on  Stewartia malacodendron .

The ruffled petal edges on Stewartia malacodendron.

We saw other unique woodies at this location.  Right next to the Stewartia was a Hamamelis vernalis with good maroon coloration in the emerging foliage and a healthy stand of fruit on the old growth.  

 
The red-colored pigments in the emerging foliage on this  Hamamelis vernalis  likely provide protection from sunlight.

The red-colored pigments in the emerging foliage on this Hamamelis vernalis likely provide protection from sunlight.

 

A new tree to me was Crataegus marshallii (parsley-leaf hawthorn), which resembled a small-leaved Acer palmatum with the dissection and red petioles.  

The leaves of  Crataegus marshallii  look like little Christmas trees!

The leaves of Crataegus marshallii look like little Christmas trees!

And, we found a nice stand of Rhus trilobata, an excellent native groundcover.

Students contemplate trusting Peter and me that this is actually three-leaf sumac ( Rhus trilobata ) and not poison ivy!

Students contemplate trusting Peter and me that this is actually three-leaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) and not poison ivy!

On the herbaceous side (since this was an herbaceous plants class trip), I marked a plant off my wish list for seeing in the wild—Trillium ludovicianum!  I adore Trillium and miss growing them and seeing them from haunts back east.  This species is one that makes it far enough west.  I was amazed to see the sandy soil it was growing in!  I always imagined this species growing in cool, moist ravines here in east Texas, and here it was growing on a ridge of sand just a few feet short of missing the road grader’s blade!  Trillium ludovicianum appears similar to Trillium gracile with speckled leaves, but it has a more clump forming habit.  

Trillium ludovicianum  a bit past prime bloom but a spectacular find!

Trillium ludovicianum a bit past prime bloom but a spectacular find!

Another plant that I was happy to see was a species of pussytoes called Antennaria parlinii because I’ve been searching for good matrix species for the south.  It grew in an open spot under small trees, again in sandy soil.  Most Antennaria are good groundcovers, and while there was space between plants, perhaps with some encouragement the foliage would knit together.  

2019-0507-014 Antennaria parlinii-LRPS.jpeg

Before we left, we made a brief trip down to the stream to see a western population of Itea virginica and a disjunct population of Xanthorhiza simplicissima.   I’m was thrilled that Peter introduced us to this unique habitat where species that occur in abundance further east still find a home.  

Part two of the trip coming soon.

A Cool-colored Planting

I’ve been inspired by the cool-colored wildflowers of Texas to create a plant community that celebrates their cheerful energy.  Living here for the past few years I’ve noticed this side of the color wheel tends to dominant the showier flowers and is likely a result of co-evolution with the pollinators present.

While I’m still a year or two away from having a full month-by-month list, I thought I would share a snapshot of an early trial bed of this color palette.   In a crescent-shaped planting near our drive way I’ve been plugging blues, mulberrys, fuschias, pinks, and whites in to see how they grow and mingle together. And, now that’s it’s looking particularly good, I wanted to share a snapshot of the flora with you.

This scene greets me every morning as I walk to my edible garden.

This scene greets me every morning as I walk to my edible garden.

The dominant emergent is Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus scattered in the bed.  The fuschia-colored flowers radiate from a distance, and the north-facing slope creates a tiered theater effect so I see the audience of scapes from a distance in my veg patch.  More sparse in the bed are two penstemon—Penstemon tenuis and Penstemon laxiflorus.  The former has small, funnel-shapel purple flowers with ruffled edges that remind me of those old glass lampshades, and the later has blooms that are a pale pink and a bit flatter and longer.  A few Phlox pilosa in the bed still in the midst of bloom, and I’ve been watching them for seed to sow next year for more of this seasonal filler.

A few blues are scattered about.  The Sisyrinchium are pretty much finished, but their absence is now being filled by Prunella vulgaris.  It’s a nice native herb that has flowers which can’t decide if they are blue or purple.  And, I can’t forget the Tradescantia in flower.  Every morning, I smile seeing their brilliant blue flowers open. 

White flowers serve as good neutral colors in the mix.  A few Hymenopappus artemisiifolius plants are blooming with Astrantia-like blossoms.  I also adore the couple of Baptisia alba in the bed.  The stems have a dark purple color that continues my cool-colored theme.  And, Achillea millefolium is beginning to carpet the ground to provide an effective groundcover. It’s white landing pads add a nice splash of brightness to the bed.

As the color scheme evolves, I’ll share more about what’s of interest.

A Cruel April Fools' Joke

Mother Nature played a cruel April Fools’ joke on me.  The forecasted low last night was 38°F.  The actual temperature recorded was 29°F.  

Whoa, what a drop!  I even checked last night around 9 pm before bed and saw that there was a freeze warning out for most of Arkansas and half of Mississippi and Alabama.  “Poor souls,” I thought.  

This morning, I about flipped when I saw 29°F as the low.  We had just planted over 140 tomatoes in our campus garden on Friday.  Would they be dead?! 

When I arrived at school, I rushed to check on them.  A few showed slight water-soaking, but the majority of them looked ok!  Whew! It’s marvelous having the garden on a hill with the ag building to the north to offer some frost protection.  Today, students covered them with row covers.

Water-soaked leaves on one of the tomatoes that didn’t fare well after the sudden temperature drop.

Water-soaked leaves on one of the tomatoes that didn’t fare well after the sudden temperature drop.

At home I didn’t fare so well.  Baby basil plants were burned this morning, and my potatoes were turning black when I got home later in the day.  I actually had the forethought to cover my tomatoes at home a day early for the 32–34°F they forecasted for tonight.  That protection likely saved them.  

Tomatoes are one crop gardeners try to protect as we play tug-of-war with the weather.  Early enough to be the first to have them but late enough so they don’t freeze.  With last night I realized my mindset on starting tomatoes has changed after moving to Texas. 

My cautious rule back home was to never plant tomatoes before May 1.  Since I like to grow my own plants, seedlings started around March 15 would have enough time to develop regardless of a warm or cool spring.  Our average last frost was April 20 in northwest Tennessee, and the delay would ensure my plants weren’t hindered by the cold weather.  Even though they were planted later, many years I would have tomatoes by the 4th of July and beat other growers in the area to have the first ripe fruit.  

But, living in Texas my focus is to plant my tomatoes ASAP because we get hot so quickly.  Pollination shuts down above 90°F.

However, I’ve learned my lesson with this experience.  Thanks to an idea from Lindsey Kerr I have strung lights under the floating row cover and topped that with tarps and blankets to protect the tomatoes.  Never again will I plant a tomato before April 1.  I’m not joking.  

Frost protection with lights. I have to admit with this cover and light effect I’m getting decorating ideas for next Christmas…

Frost protection with lights. I have to admit with this cover and light effect I’m getting decorating ideas for next Christmas…

The Landscape Olympics

Last week, I was in Ft. Collins, Colorado with a team of six students participating in the National Collegiate Landscape Competition.  It may surprise you that there’s actually a competition for students to practice around 30 different horticulture skills including hardscaping, bench building, and driving a skid steer.  I know it did me when I first heard of it years ago, and surprise is usually the reaction I get when I tell people outside of horticulture where we go.  

This opportunity is an incredible chance for students to really spread their roots into the green industry.  The competitions require undergrads to practice skills before they arrive, and the career fair challenges them to engage with industry leaders.  As a professor, it’s inspiring to see so many different companies present and willing to help students.  I believe that it’s one of the best events for students to attend.  

Oh, and I guess you want to know if we won anything!  Anna Claire won best student for the social media competition, I won the faculty social media award, and the school won the overall social media award.  In all it was $2000 cash, $500 in Permaloc edging, and $500 in Corona tools.  

Below are some pictures I took from the event.  If you aren’t familiar with the competition, check it out and consider helping a local team in your area!  Sam Hill Tree Care, Benchmark Landscapes, and Yellowstone Landscape supported our team and allowed us to do more at the competition.

 
Hardscape installation! Our team qualified for the first time this year. In this contest, students have 1 hour and 50 minutes to install a patio.

Hardscape installation! Our team qualified for the first time this year. In this contest, students have 1 hour and 50 minutes to install a patio.

There’s also arboriculture where students can show off their climbing skills.

There’s also arboriculture where students can show off their climbing skills.

The last contest of the event is landscape installation teams of three have two hours to install a planting to spec.

The last contest of the event is landscape installation teams of three have two hours to install a planting to spec.

And, here we are on stage winning the social media contest! If you want to see more pics from the competition, check out our    @sfahorticulture    Instagram page.

And, here we are on stage winning the social media contest! If you want to see more pics from the competition, check out our @sfahorticulture Instagram page.

 

Beauty in the Spring

“I’m probably the only person in Texas doing this.  Well, let’s be honest, Jared.  Probably the whole US.”

I chuckled talking to myself as my shovel loosened the eighth clump of spring beauty from a bed in my vegetable patch.  With a sunny afternoon and the return of warmer temperatures, the flowers were beginning to explode and made finding them easier.  I stood up with the transplant, paused to pull off any weeds that still had purchase in the loosened soil, and reached underneath to check and make sure the corm was there and intact.  It was.  

I smiled thinking about someone else moving this plant because who would waste their time relocating these little guys?  Spring beauty by itself isn’t super showy.  The flowers are maybe the size of a dime, and they are finicky opening and closing with the day or rainy weather conditions.  However, looking up at my yard I was reminded why my fingers were coated in the warming winter muck; drifts of pale pink flowers wafted in the breeze.  And, I couldn’t stand the thought of harming any of them, even if this area was where I would be cultivating vegetables.

Claytonia virginica  in full bloom gives the appearance of snow. I had plugged some  Narcissus  in this area earlier this fall, but I plan to relocate them. The yellow is too saturated for the pink tint of spring beauty.

Claytonia virginica in full bloom gives the appearance of snow. I had plugged some Narcissus in this area earlier this fall, but I plan to relocate them. The yellow is too saturated for the pink tint of spring beauty.

I have adored spring beauty since I first observed it growing in someone’s yard down the road from our house in Tennessee.  I was amazed at this tiny white bloom that abundantly covered their entire front lawn every spring.  Why couldn’t our homeplace look like that?  I didn’t know the plant at first. I kept wanting to stop and look at it more closely to ascertain its identity, but soon I found it growing in a nearby woods and collected a few to take back to my garden.  I had turned an interesting-looking stranger into a friend by finally meeting Claytonia virginica.  

If you drove by recently and saw me laying on the ground, this photograph was why.

If you drove by recently and saw me laying on the ground, this photograph was why.

The few I transplanted those many years ago don’t even begin to compare with the thousands that now grow in my Texas yard.  I didn’t know they were here when I chose this location for the edible patch, hence my moving them now to a bed that needs more early spring color and vegetation.  I didn’t even know they were here at all when we bought the house in August 18 months ago!  But, when the first frost erased the turf’s chlorophyll and created a mosaic of tans, thin strips of purple foliage caught my eye.  The Claytonia was slathering on some anthocyanins for winter sunscreen.  And, as the winter unfolded into spring, I would see it was everywhere as it came into full bloom.  

In Tennessee this species became my herald of spring and a sign of warmer days to come.  But, here in Texas I have caught it blooming even before the onset of winter.  In 2017 I noted the first bloom on 05 December, and this past year, I caught two separate plants flowering just shy of the solstice on the 16 of December.  As an ephemeral, it must use its 15 minutes on stage wisely to grow, flower and set seed, and store energy before the canopy closes.  After that, the plant vanishes until the show returns next year.  Therefore, it makes sense that through natural selection it start performing as early as it can.  

I’ve learned much about spring beauty in recent years both digging in the soil and the literature.  There is a single corm from which the flowers and foliage arises.  Some sources will label it a bulb or a tuber, but from what I’ve deduced a corm more accurately reflects the circular storage organ.  The flowers grow out and then up from the mature corm, which gives the appearance of the shoots arising in a circle while the foliage tends to emerge straight upwards.  So, if you decide to move some from the lawn, take care not to slice through the shoots.  I like to sink the shovel in the soil on the outside of a clump and lift.  Then, I take care to settle the plant back in to the same depth.  

A single clump of  Claytonia virginica  nestled into its new home.

A single clump of Claytonia virginica nestled into its new home.

I have often thought of spring beauty as the deep south’s alternative for Galanthus.  We have a sparse selection of geophytes due to our lack of chilling.  Yes, the flowers are smaller, but their bloom time lasts longer than snowdrops due to a dozen of flowers on one raceme.  Claytonia virginica also has color variation within a population. You will likely see white-flowering and dark-pink-flowering plants in the same area with color morphs along that gradient. Research done in 2004 sheds light on why. Pollinators prefer dark-pink-colored flowers; thus, with natural selection you would expect to see the population flower color get darker and darker pink over time. If pollinators prefer a color, that usually means more pollination, more seed set, and more individuals expressing that trait in the population. However, the white flowers get their coloration from compounds like quercetin and kaempferol. These molecules protect the plant from herbivory and fungal infection. It’s a really fascinating look at different selection pressures maintaining variation in a population. One plant I moved had darker pink flowers has some rust-like disease on the leaves. Maybe this research explains why!

And speaking of pollinators, since spring beauty blooms so early, it makes a good model species for studying early spring behavior of bugs.  One paper I read demonstrated that 22 species of insects visited the flowers over a two-year observation period.  Filaments (the structures supporting the pollen-loaded stamens) that reflect UV light no doubt light up the runway for our antennaed friends.  Humans used to depend on them, too. A student once taught me that Native Americans once dug them and ate them. 

Claytonia virginica  can have different colored blooms in the same population. Here, you see white and pink flowers. Also, notice how pink the stamens are (the five rice-shaped structures near the center of the flower).

Claytonia virginica can have different colored blooms in the same population. Here, you see white and pink flowers. Also, notice how pink the stamens are (the five rice-shaped structures near the center of the flower).

It’s been a few weeks since I transplanted the Claytonia, and they are settling in nicely.   I enjoy walking out the door and seeing them a stones throw away.  With spring on the rise, other tasks call for me in the garden, but know that next year when they emerge again, I’ll find loners that need to be relocated from cultivated beds to less disturbed and more permanent plantings.  One day my garden beds will look look a little less barren and like the lawn will be dusted with this spring beauty, too.

Pin the Plant on the Triangle

This semester, one of the classes I’m teaching is herbaceous plants, and I’m taking the class beyond the usual discussions of annuals and perennials.  From studying herbaceous plant communities, one of the most useful concepts that I’ve learned in recent years is the classification of a plant’s survival strategies.  

I’ve written about it before here and here.  As a refresher, Grime pitched that plants had three strategies based on environmental factors.  

  • COMPETITORS are plants that take advantages of any and all resources they can muster.  They grow tall and wide to take out the competition.  Usually these stalwarts are perennial in nature, and they grow where stress and disturbance are nil.

  • STRESS-TOLERATORS are plants that have adaptations to ensure survival when stress arises and conditions deteriorate.  They are usually perennial and can take many years to flower from seed.

  • RUDERALS are short-lived annuals or biennials that are frequently exposed to some type of disturbance, which has selected for plants that quickly produce seed.

Usually, this strategy is visualized using a triangle (much like the soil texture triangle!) where a certain species can be shown to be—pulling some numbers out of the air—say, 70% competitor, 20% ruderal, and 10% stress tolerator based on the characteristics they exhibit.  

A figure of Grime’s triangle from    Pierre et al. (2017) titled A global method for calculating plant CSR ecological strategies applied across biomes world-wide   . As you can see the authors attempted to classify plants across the globe based on their tendency to be a competitor, stress-tolerator, or ruderal.

A figure of Grime’s triangle from Pierre et al. (2017) titled A global method for calculating plant CSR ecological strategies applied across biomes world-wide. As you can see the authors attempted to classify plants across the globe based on their tendency to be a competitor, stress-tolerator, or ruderal.

How do you take this concept from theory to application for students? Much research and data collection is needed to be able to precisely place a plant on the triangle.  Can it be done in a more simple fashion?  

After we covered the CSR theory in class, I did an activity with students.  I gave small groups (three to four) a list of seven different herbaceous plants and asked them to look up information and pictures online and try to determine where on Grime’s triangle it would fit.  I drew a triangle on the board labeling the sides and gave them markers and half sheets of paper for writing plant names.  

I then challenged them in pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey fashion (no blindfolds or sharp objects though!) to figure out where on the triangle the species would go by searching for it online.  Students looked for tendencies to spread, cover large areas, form large clumps, and/or have rhizomes (COMPETITOR); tendencies to produce copious amounts of seed, occur in areas of disturbance, and/or be short lived (RUDERAL); and tendencies to live in a stressful habitat, take a long time to flower, and/or have storage organs (STRESS-TOLERATOR).

One by one they started coming up and making educated guesses.  I stood by the triangle to offer advice and suggestions.  Some hit the nail on the head while others needed a little bit of coaxing to the right place.  

At the end, we went over the 20 or so species I provided as a challenge.  Again, I explained that while some species neatly fit into one group, some straddle the fence like Liatris elegans.  It has a corm (a stem-derived storage organ indicating some level of stress toleration) yet produces copious amounts of seed (traits of a ruderal).  

Pin the plant on the triangle—a fun game to teach students about plant survival strategies. Based on your plant knowledge, how do you think they did?

Pin the plant on the triangle—a fun game to teach students about plant survival strategies. Based on your plant knowledge, how do you think they did?

As gardeners it’s very helpful to think about flora in this way.  It helps us anticipate how plants will perform.  It explains why Gaillardia and Aquilegia don’t live long as perennials (ruderals), why Mentha and Monarda spread like crazy (competitors), and why Trillium and Narcissus  take 3–7 years to flower from seed (stress-tolerators).   It also allows us to envision how to combine plants.  Maybe put that runaway competitor in a drier spot to keep it from taking over creation?  Or, sow some ruderals in between the stress-tolerators to keep weeds down.  

If students can decide approximately which section of the triangle plants fit in during a 15 minute activity using search engines, then we can by watching how plants grow over the course of a year. 

So, that’s your homework for the season. Draw a triangle and see if you can’t plot where the species in your garden fit.

Chillin' for a Peach Fillin'

My first peach tree is flowering.  ‘Flordaking’—and, yes, there is not an i missing. The name gave me pause the first time, too—arrived last fall in a six-foot-long box. Upon opening said package, to my surprise a six-foot-tall Prunus persica was inside.  I guess that’s what happens when you buy a five-gallon tree.  

 
Present, past, and future flowers of ‘Flordaking’ peach

Present, past, and future flowers of ‘Flordaking’ peach

 

I sited it in our edible patch.  I had initially set aside this approximately 100 × 100 ft fenced area to be an orchard, but after mental iterations, it became clear after some damage from deer, boar, rabbits, and armadillos that the area would be better suited for more annual production since they were obliterated elsewhere.  I slated the back third edge-habitat area for fruit trees, and the rest of the front was for cut flowers and veggies.  

While I’m more of a nectarine person myself, Karen likes them; therefore, in the orchard a peach went.  The reason I chose ‘Flordaking’ is because of its low chill requirement.  In horticulture we talk about chilling hours as a measure for how much cold a plant must receive before it flowers, and while there are different approaches to calculate that number, let’s say that we count the hours under 45F.  

I teach students that a tree’s chill requirement is an alarm clock. It is a wonderful adaptation that some temperate trees have to the extreme stress of being exposed to cold temperatures in the winter.  Just like some people need 6 hours of rest and others need 8 (…or 10), some peaches need a few hundred hours down south while others further north require 1000 hours.  

Chilling causes sugar levels in the trees to increase and hormone levels to change.  The tree must be exposed to a certain amount of chilling to be able to flower.  If not enough chilling is perceived, then the plant can’t flower because enough metabolic changes haven’t occurred yet.  The alarm clock hasn’t gone off and the tree can’t wake up.  In fact, planting a high chill requirement tree in the south where we have warm winters every so often may result in the plant being extremely delayed in growth.  

‘Flordaking’ is estimated to need about 400 hours of cold.  Released by the University of Florida in 1978, it’s touted to be one of the best varieties for us to plant in zone 8.  

 
A honeybee dusted with pollen. For fun, notice how the stamens (filament structures) change from orange in a new flower opening to yellow where they are shedding pollen.

A honeybee dusted with pollen. For fun, notice how the stamens (filament structures) change from orange in a new flower opening to yellow where they are shedding pollen.

 

The appearance of petals in recent weeks indicated that the snooze wasn’t pushed. Instead, the tree is rising and shining. It is pure delight to watch the petals unfurl.  The other afternoon I stood and watched a bee work the sparse flowers on the little tree in the waning light.  It wasn’t very skittish and allowed me to get close and observe it swimming in the stamens to get the nectar at the center. While peaches are self-fertile and one tree will produce fruit, I’m going to add another one or two to the patch for some diversity.  

This list has been helpful picking some low chill varieties for our garden.  Maybe it’ll help you, too.