Magnolia Seed, Spooky Stuff

“Have these things always looked like this?,” Karen asked with a hint of surprise in her voice.

Even though my back was turned as I stood at the kitchen sink, I knew exactly what had caught her eye.

A few days earlier I had plucked some ripe fruit from a Magnolia grandiflora in our yard that had colored up very nicely. They were easy to find on the ground and in the tree with their blushed, knobby appearance. I brought them indoors and was inspired to put them in a bowl on our table from seeing them top containers a few autumns ago at the Scott Arboretum. Such a clever use!

When I brought them inside, the fruiting bodies were sealed shut, but a few days in the house and the follicles on the aggregate structure started to split open and reveal their vermillion-colored seeds inside.

“They look like painted witch fingernails growing out of these things,” Karen continued. Both she and her sister who was visiting from out of town indicated they looked a bit freaky. It was nearing Halloween, and we had just watched Hocus Pocus a few nights earlier. I could see how seeds that magically appear overnight growing out of a structure could be a bit spooky and repulsive.

I, however, was delighted to see the seeds. We want more Magnolia trees on our property. Most years I’m too late getting to a tree to collect the little rubies because the birds and mammals get to the goods first. But, the propagules were right on my table for the picking.

In prepping for sowing in the past, I’ve removed the outer aril scrapping them with my own fingernails. However, one of the tricks I learned from reading Andrew Bunting’s book The Plant Lover’s Guide to Magnolias and a blog post he wrote during his tenure at the Scott Arboretum is soaking the seeds for three days in water will aid in removing the red arils that cover the surface along with any associated eeriness one might perceive.

Tonight, I plucked the last of the seeds from the follicles and plopped them into water-filled mason jars on our kitchen windowsill. After they’re cleaned, I’ll sow them in some damp growing media in a ziplock bag, stick it in the fridge for a couple of months to help overcome dormancy, and sow them in late winter.

I just hope no one confuses this batch in our fridge for chocolate cake mix.

 Cone-like fruit of  Magnolia  top dress a container at the Scott Arboretum. You have to admit that the seeds emerging in the bottom left look a bit demonish.

Cone-like fruit of Magnolia top dress a container at the Scott Arboretum. You have to admit that the seeds emerging in the bottom left look a bit demonish.

The Old Factories

The door has closed for good on the old factory. Once full of the hustle and bustle of making, the air inside is now still and quiet. The essentials were moved out and relocated. All that’s left is a lifeless skeleton.

And, then the factory falls. From some lofty branch, this once photosynthetic powerhouse takes a whimsical whirl to the ground. Its landing spot is as uncertain as is its future.

Many view these factories with scorn. They burn them, demolish them, toss them to the curb. Anything to make the abandoned structures vanish and keep up the block.

But, I enjoy the old factories.

I enjoy shuffling through their midst. Their stark colors pop against the verdant turf. In some, the incandescent glow hasn’t been turned off just yet and still beam of color from livelier days. Where the wind takes them, they congregate and delineate fencerow and field alike. In such piles, kicking their stolid walls in a stiff breeze animates them once more.

I also enjoy how the old factories enhance the neighborhood. Arthropod entrepreneurs move in and bring a second life to these empty vessels. These remnants become hangout places for fungi and fun girl alike. Soon, the smell of brewed geosmin and earthy smells is on every corner. Graffiti and murals from earthworms and beetles appear overnight. Gentrification, right out my back door.

Yes, I enjoy the old factories. And, I wouldn’t get rid of them for the world.

 
2016-1012-023 fallen leaves-LRPS1x1.jpg
 

With the arrival of November, I find myself raking leaves. And, being surrounded by trees on two and a half acres, we have plenty to use. Some have started to drop in earnest while others still hold fast. The succession helps this collector of fallen foliage.

While many gardeners herd them to the curb, to me each leaf is precious and nary a one leaves our property. For years, I’ve considered the litter quite valuable. Even as a teenager, I’d pile them up to make leaf mold and use this black gold to mulch plants the following year.

I keep my greed in check. Many that fall lie where they land for most of the winter. But, in areas where they are plentiful, I relocate them by the wheelbarrow load from the lawn to garden beds. A thin layer keeps the weeds down around vegetables, perennials, and woodies, and a thick layer smoothers the grass (save for the dastardly Bermuda!) to help create new planting areas. That’s exactly what I’m doing around our fig saplings. In the spring, this blanket will be plugged with grasses to create a groundcover matrix.

Some beds that I mulched last fall still have an icing of last year’s leaves. Amazing, no? They need a new coating as a few weeds are gaining hold, but still I’m impressed that they’ve persisted for so long.

Yes, I wouldn’t get rid of them for the world.

I'm Digging Peanuts

I dug peanuts the other night for the first time ever. I did the math and determined that approximately 130 days had passed since I shelled the seeds and thumbed them into the ground. Still wanting to garden after the sundown in a month of shortening days, I decided their time had come. I turned on our side door lights, grabbed the pitchfork, and stepped off into our kitchen garden to start prying them up.

We don't have very many plants in the ground—maybe 30–40 in a bed ten feet long. I was wanting to trial them out here in east Texas before I went gung-ho planting. With this small space, I didn’t expect the harvest to take too long or be too difficult.

The only hindrance was finding where a plant’s crown was. It wasn’t the dark that hid them but the long shoots. 'African Runner' was really living up to its name as shoots two feet or longer weaved together to form an amorphous mass of foliage.

A few pries from the fork along the edge, and they slipped right out of the ground with a gentle tug. I was surprised to see the peanuts holding onto the plant so well from the little pedicles. Having just dug sweet potatoes a few weeks back, I figured they’d be breaking off left and right to escape the harvest and remain in their underground sanctuary.

After digging, I laid them upside down to let the plants wilt a bit and called it a night. A rain the next day washed most of the soil off and made removing the chthonic fruit from the plant a much cleaner job. Karen even helped a bit, and by the end of sorting through the legumes, we had over a gallon bucket’s worth. Plenty for next year, Pad Thai, roasting and salting, and maybe even some peanut brittle if I’m adventurous.

 
  Peanuts galore.

Peanuts galore.

 

Overall, I was quite pleased with their performance. They made a spectacular groundcover during our fierce summer; therefore, I’m considering integrating them with summer crops like sunflowers and corn. Get the taller plant growing and then come behind with peanuts. Their nitrogen fixing ability is a plus as I explore using more functional cover crops here.

A Sweet Harvest

My first job was working two summers during high school at a sweet potato farm just over the county line in McConnell, Tennessee.  Mom got me the gig.  Fred’s Plant Farm was owned by one of her co-workers, and he was looking for weekend and summer help.  Every Saturday morning till I got my license Mom drove me to work.  It was hot work, but as I reflect on those sultry days, I have fond pastoral memories of working on a farm. 

The plant farm's claim to fame was once having their sweet potatoes mentioned on the Martha Stewart show.  It wasn’t the large storage roots we dug each fall that Martha had mentioned.  No, what she had purchased were sweet potato slips, short adventitious shoots that arise from the storage root.  These were the mainstay of the company and easily shipped across the country to tv mogul and master gardener alike.  Selling large sweet potato roots in rickety wooden bushel baskets was just a bonus.

Before I arrived, I knew very little about this root vegetable that thrives in our southeast weather.  At the time, I didn’t even like sweet potatoes.  But working on the farm gave me a great crash course of how to cultivate this southern staple.  To produce the slips, we erected wooden beds about 10 feet wide and 100 feet long initially in a hoop house and then built them outdoors once it warmed enough to pass the fear of freezes.  We leveled the soil, poured the sweet potatoes in by the bushel, and then topped them off with four inches of fresh sawdust.  As the sawdust heated, it nudged them along into sprouting. 

  Sweet potato slips grown in a bed of sawdust. The propagules are pulled, bundled, and shipped around the country.

Sweet potato slips grown in a bed of sawdust. The propagules are pulled, bundled, and shipped around the country.

We waited I don’t know how many weeks for the shoots to emerge in the cool spring.  I was so eager to see the little tops push out of the substrate I dreamed one night that I walked into the hoophouse and discovered hundreds of them sprouting.  The next day at work, lo and behold I found some emerging.  After they appeared was when the real work began. We would spend hours pulling sweet potatoes in bundles of 50.  These would be packaged and shipped off.  The last of the batch would become our starts for the fields.  Once planted, they grew until harvested in autumn and then were stored over winter until the whole process would repeat again the following spring. 

  Sweet potatoes growing in a field just outside Martin, Tennessee. These will be harvested and used for next year’s starts.

Sweet potatoes growing in a field just outside Martin, Tennessee. These will be harvested and used for next year’s starts.


Ten years later, I’m growing sweet potatoes again.  But, now I LOVE LOVE LOVE these sweet and nutritious delicacies:  sliced and diced with cajun seasoning, mashed with butter and salt, or in sweet potato casserole (or as my friend Stewart Thomas calls the dish butter and brown sugar casserole with a bit of sweet potatoes).  The casserole was what converted me.  A recipe my mom found won 1st place at a cooking contest in Tennessee, and it didn’t rely on any of that extra marshmallow or raisin fluff. 

As much as I love them, it can be hard to find slips every year to purchase, and sometimes they can be quite expensive.  Sweet potatoes are an asexually propagated crop.  Most organs that we store as vegetative propagules like sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes (which is a swollen stem, not a root), garlic (which are swollen leaves, not a root), and the like we don’t store as seed.  These fleshy organs are still metabolically active whereas many seed are dormant or in a resting state just waiting on water.  Therefore, they won’t keep as long as say those tomato seeds from five years ago in the back of your fridge.  That’s why they must be constantly regenerated.  Hence the need to go slip to root to slip. 

To get slips I took a lesson from my farm experiences as a teenager, and I grow my own.  First, I propagated a few at SFA and watched students enjoy learning how to start the little slivers.  I got my starts for school a few summers ago from George’s Plant Farm in Martin, TN.  Funny that the one place I could find several different varieties available in the whole country was only about 30 minutes from my Tennessee home.  We planted them out, and the following fall my Fruit and Vegetable Production class harvested over 90 lbs of sweet potatoes.  We averaged 1.6 lbs for ‘Beauregard’ and 0.6 lbs for ‘Purple Passion’.

 
  A sweet potato slip grown by a student at SFA. Probably named so because they slip right out of the substrate with a nice jerk from above.

A sweet potato slip grown by a student at SFA. Probably named so because they slip right out of the substrate with a nice jerk from above.

 

After harvest, I had the students grade the sweet potatoes into large and small roots just like we did back at the farm.    The large ones we sold in our garden market, and the small ones we stored in our classroom for forcing later in the spring.  When time came the next year, we used four-inch-deep nursery trays to start our slips.  We covered them with potting substrate, placed the trays in the greenhouse, and less than a month later the shoots were ready to pull.  If left too long, you could quickly see where the genus gets the name Ipomoea, which means worm-like.  The shoots will grow and wriggle all over the table even from the little bit of soil in the tray.  

Once slips are pulled, a quick jab and pry forward and back with a sturdy shovel makes a good planting hole.  We stick the shoots in, and they form roots very quickly.  Well, let’s be technical.  The latent roots already in the stem emerge quickly.  That’s right, sweet potato stems have roots up and down their length as does tomatoes, coleus, and willow that enable them to quickly gain purchase to new soil or if damage occurs to the stem.  Cuttings I’ve taken in the past put out roots within two days in water.

This year at my house, I’ve played around with making starts, too.  I took some leftover ‘Beauregard’ and ‘O’Henry’ sweet potatoes we purchased, nestled them just under the soil, covered them with a few inches of leaf mold, and less than two weeks later I saw wee little shoots poking out.  After they got a few leaves on them, I pulled them out of the ground, and stuck them into a bed.  They’ve grown beautifully over the summer excluded from deer by our double fence that surrounds our patch. 

  Sweet potatoes are excellent soil covers as you can see in the image above. If you can keep them clean early on, they will seal their canopy and prevent weeds from germinating. However, I left the  Rhus  seedling in the back right corner to be moved to our prairie.

Sweet potatoes are excellent soil covers as you can see in the image above. If you can keep them clean early on, they will seal their canopy and prevent weeds from germinating. However, I left the Rhus seedling in the back right corner to be moved to our prairie.

This past week marked approximately 100 days since planting, and the fresh rains that have fallen loosened the soil.  Time to dig sweet potatoes!  I cut the foliage off and carried it to the compost pile.  Then, with the pitchfork I jabbed straight down into the ground careful not to puncture the storage roots, pried the swollen treasure out, and moved down the bed to unearth more.  After all were dug, I gave them a light rinse from the hose but not a scrub.  You don’t want to remove too much protective waxes from the root.  Now, they have been sitting outside for a week elevated to protect from hungry rodents.  This practice helps the wounds heal over.  In the next day or so, I’ll move them inside.  The small ones I’ll keep for next year, and the big ones I’ll eat.  

  Thar she blows! You know you’ve got something under the ground when you see the soil around the stem bulged up.

Thar she blows! You know you’ve got something under the ground when you see the soil around the stem bulged up.

  The swollen roots of ‘O’Henry’ sweet potato. Getting them out all still attached to the plant is an art in produce transportation.

The swollen roots of ‘O’Henry’ sweet potato. Getting them out all still attached to the plant is an art in produce transportation.

  My table runneth over with sweet potatoes.  ‘Beauregard’ on the left and ‘O’Henry’ on the right.

My table runneth over with sweet potatoes. ‘Beauregard’ on the left and ‘O’Henry’ on the right.

And, oh will I eat them!  I’m ecstatic about our harvest this year.  ‘Beauregard’ is an old favorite of mine so I’m thrilled to have a good supply of this orange fleshed variety, and ‘O’Henry’ is supposedly a white-fleshed mutation of ‘Beauregard’.  It’s yield was about 50% more than the ol’ Beau.  So, if it tastes as good, I may have found another favorite variety.

One final note as far as cooking goes.  You can enhance the sweetness of them by starting them in a cool oven.  The enzyme that converts starch to sugar has more time to act if you start them cold than if you pre-heat the oven.  Cause if you’re going to grow sweet potatoes, why not make them as sweet as can be?    

Bolting to Boltonia

I’ve been on a Boltonia kick of late.   

It started because of how well Boltonia asteroides has grown for me this year.  I’ve wanted to try this species for a while because BONAP showed its range extending down into Louisiana, and I thought it might do well in east Texas.  On a trip to North Carolina several months ago, I picked up a plant labeled Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’.  It was just scrawny leaves in a 4 inch pot when I bought it.  I stuck it in a trial bed that received very little moisture over the summer and didn’t expect much from it.

But, the doll’s daisy kept growing and growing and growing.  Till it was over my head.  That was even after the top was nipped out by deer.  Althought it was labeled as ‘Snowbank’, I actually think that I got the straight species instead.  ‘Snowbank’ tends to be shorter.  The height isn’t a bad thing and allows me to look up into a cosmos of thousands of flowers, each swirled with white rays and a glowing yellow disk at the center.  

   Boltonia bokeh .

Boltonia bokeh.

  Close up of  Boltonia asteroides  flowers. Once they begin to fade, the ray florets rain down and cover the ground like little white sprinkles. Or, your arm if you brush past the plant.

Close up of Boltonia asteroides flowers. Once they begin to fade, the ray florets rain down and cover the ground like little white sprinkles. Or, your arm if you brush past the plant.

 
  This  Boltonia asteroides  is over six feet tall in my little trial bed beside our house.

This Boltonia asteroides is over six feet tall in my little trial bed beside our house.

 

On mornings following a rain, the thin stems are bejeweled in droplets of water that shimmer in the rising sunlight.  The foliage is a glaucous color, and this dusting of blue-gray provides the slightest color echo for the white ray florets.  And, if you pull on the margins of the leaves, you’ll notice a sharp edge from the little cilia.  So much character from a native.  

Armitage’s tome says that "most species are too large and lanky to be considered for anything but the wildflower garden."  Bah.  I think there’s an elegance to the plant, and I agree with Allan Lacy’s account in The Garden in Autumn where he admires the “delicacy and substantial presence” of Boltonia.   And, let’s be honest.  The wildflower look is quite what I’m after.  Maybe it’s not as lanky because we are so dry here in east Texas?  Time will tell.  My only concern growing it is I’ve read if it’s happy it can spread via rhizomes underground.  So, I’m going to find somewhere it can grow where that won’t be a problem. I’m already eyeing our fencerow.


Around this same time that I was being enchanted by my Boltonia blooming, my friend Patrick Cullina posted a picture of Boltonia diffusa at the Atlanta Botanic Garden on Instagram.  Same effect, but only a third of the height!  Wowzers.  I went back to BONAP and was delighted to discover it’s native to our area!  My mind started drifting back to last fall when in the post-house buying haze and rush I wondered if I had caught a glimpse of this species in our area, perhaps even on our road.  I reached out to a few local colleagues who said they had seen it scattered on county roadsides and ditches.

A day or two later, a flurry of white flowers caught my eye on the side of the road, and one evening when I had some time I stopped to investigate, I found smallhead doll’s daisy.  The flowers and foliage were just like Boltonia asteroides, only smaller.   It had been nipped a while back, and inflorescences arose from around the pruned point.  The cut was probably from the mowers when they came through in August. 

   Boltonia diffusa  growing in the wild.

Boltonia diffusa growing in the wild.

   Boltonia diffusa  settles into its new home in our garden. Blooming at just over a foot tall, I see it making a great companion plant to weave through accent grasses and taller forbs.

Boltonia diffusa settles into its new home in our garden. Blooming at just over a foot tall, I see it making a great companion plant to weave through accent grasses and taller forbs.

A second patch I found was much larger. It seems these two were early to come into bloom.  With a mental image of this dwarf doll’s daisy, it seems every quarter mile driving into town I’ve started seeing little clumps of the blue-green foliage waiting to be adorned with autumnal flowers.

I collected pieces of the two clumps I found and planted them back at our house to start bulking up for our prairie here.  I don’t think it will be hard to propagate.  The rhizomatous nature was evident from the off-white shoots I found underground. 

Whether these doll’s daisies are tall or short, I’m happy to have them in our garden.   I’ve still got ‘Snowbank’ on my wish list, and diving into Lacy’s book on autumn alerted me to ‘Pink Beauty’, a pink-flowering form from Montrose Nursery.  Looks like I’m not done growing this genus.  

Eragrostis, a Grass I Love

One of the perks about living out in the country is I have a delightful 20 minute drive into town to enjoy the east Texas countryside and keep abreast of the phenology of the local flora. 

It was about this time last year right after moving into our new house that I was driving to work familiarizing myself with my new route when a plant sporting a glimmering haze on the side of the road caught my eye.  When I actually had a chance to stop, I pulled off and identified it as Eragrostis spectabilis, commonly known as purple love grass.  I enjoyed seeing the dew collecting on the panicles and the early morning light imbuing it with an ethereal character that would inevitably evaporate as the day aged.  Most sprigs I saw were single, scraggly flowers that looked like the way a young girl might practice putting her hair up for the first time. 

But, one clump was spectacular!  It was full and lush, bigger than a basketball, and hard to miss in the fresh light of dawn.  Every day I’d drive past it and admire that shimering plant against a shaggy fencerow.

I had to have it.  Since I arrived in Texas in July of 2014, I’ve been hunting for short, groundcover species that will perform well in our area.  Most plants I’ve tried are imports, but here was a species right down the road just waiting to have its potential realized.  Being September, I knew that there was a chance it might not survive as many grasses moved in the fall don’t establish well.  But, with love and care and some horticultural knowledge, there was also a good chance it would live.  

With shovel in car one Saturday morning, I pulled off along the roadside and walked over to meet my new friend that I had been admiring from afar.  The spade slid right through the sandy soil, and a few jabs and levers later the Eragrostis was up with a nice rootball still intact.   Any guilt I had collecting the wild vanished a few weeks later when the mowing crews came along and sheared the roadsides.  

Back home, I found a nice spot for the transplant in the catch-all herb bed of our newly formed kitchen garden.  There, I could check on it every day and water it as needed.  I was thrilled when I saw little discoloration the next few days from it adjusting to being moved.  A few blades turned tan and purple, but overall the plant settled in nicely.  

  Even though it had a few bruises and browning after being transplanted from the roadside, this mother plant of  Eragrostis  has settled in just fine.  You can see the speckled haze of flowers hovering above the foliage.  

Even though it had a few bruises and browning after being transplanted from the roadside, this mother plant of Eragrostis has settled in just fine.  You can see the speckled haze of flowers hovering above the foliage.  

I loved going out in the mornings and see my new Poaceae pal wrapped in a crystal veil.  The flower color is not as purple/pink as most of the examples I’ve seen in catalogs or online, which made me question it's identity.  But, the height is right, it has knobby rhizomes, and the flowers match what I can find in dichotomous key photos.  My guess is down south the color is weaker than our northern counterparts as is the case for many other ornamental plants in our sweltering heat.  Or, perhaps this southern ecotype sports inflorescences that are a lighter shade of maroon?  I tried another strain of Eragrostis spectabilis from further east a few years ago whose flowers were more pink in color, but our little trial of plants died.  Perhaps they were in too wet a spot in too wet a summer?  Or, maybe it wasn’t locally adapted yet?  Not sure, but this one I discovered has performed beautifully. 

 
  The typical rosy-colored flowers of  Eragrostis spectabilis .  

The typical rosy-colored flowers of Eragrostis spectabilis.  

 
  The clump I found and those that I've propagated have more of a light pink or tawny color in the inflorescence.  

The clump I found and those that I've propagated have more of a light pink or tawny color in the inflorescence.  

As September wore on, the panicles started to mature.  I collected some seed, and sowed them on a whim.  To my amazement, they started germinating within just a few days!  No stratification or even dry storage required.  For those that need a review from plant propagation, dry storage is the name of the germination delay that some seeds experience to prevent them from germinating too early or on the mother plant.

Once the seedlings got some size to them, I took them to school and had a student pot these few up into a couple trays for our school garden beds.  To my amazement, the disturbance in the pot caused even more to germinate!  It seemed to good to be true.  These little sprigs I brought home and planted into beds here at the house.  As more of the original plant’s inflorescences began to mature, I collected more seed to become the stock for our plantings on campus.  

Winter came with the worry of loosing the original clump, but this spring, I was thrilled to see new shoots emerging on the mother plant.  Being a C4 grass, it was slow to get going, but when the brunt of summer arrived it erupted into growth.  Eventually, I tried my hand at dividing the clump into about 20 propagules, and the majority of these survived.  However, divisions do seem to grow a bit slower than those from seed.  I was also delighted to discover a few offspring popping up around the mother plant.  One even sowed its way into a crack in our pavement.  

Now, a year has passed.  We have hundreds that have been planted around the SFA agriculture building.  And, back home a few that I transplanted carpet the ground in a portion of our herb garden.  I’ve also planted it as the groundcover layer in the beds on the eastern half of the swale I’ve been building through our kitchen garden (more on that in a later post).  What few perennials I plugged around these starts look like ship masts emerging out of a grass fog.  The effect is similar to muhly grass (Muhlenbergia sp.), but the height is shorter.  It would occupy more ground, but I ran out of plants here at the house and have to propagate more.  No worries as it appears I’ll have thousands and thousands of seed in a month and Heaven knows how many seedlings next spring.

   En masse  this  Eragrostis  is spectacular, especially when covered with morning dew.  Here, it is planted along the swale that runs through our edible patch.  Next year, I expect more perennials to be established and piercing the floriferous fog.  

En masse this Eragrostis is spectacular, especially when covered with morning dew.  Here, it is planted along the swale that runs through our edible patch.  Next year, I expect more perennials to be established and piercing the floriferous fog.  

I feel proud having moved it—perhaps I could go as far as saying saved it?  And, I feel that joy every time I walk past the clumps.  In the morning, strolling past the wet panicles reminds me of the plant perspiration Christopher Lloyd wrote about in Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners.  And, once the dampness vanishes, the flowers brush against your leg like a friendly feline. 

This ecotype of Eragrostis will become a permanent fixture in our prairie plantings here at the house and on campus.  And, why not?  With a plant named love grass from right down the road that thrives in our climate, what’s not to love?

A Prairie from Scratch

Ah, August.  With the arrival of midsummer in the deep south, we can actually garden again without just hauling water to and fro.  Fall seeds are arriving, new growth is starting to appear on sun-scorched plants following a few afternoon showers, and my mind is dwelling on upcoming garden projects.  Forefront on my list is a prairie.

When we bought our house almost a year ago to the day, one of the acts that excited me the most was the creation of a prairie.  But, why?  Why return a 1/8th acre of clipped turf to wild?  These are a few reasons that immediately came to mind.  

  1. As I’ve written before, I love grasslands.  Call it primal or call it high culture, but a waltz amongst the panicles and the floral tapestry of the wild is enchanting.  
  2. I want to learn.  I want to get a hands-on education in making designed plant communities in the southeast.  This planting will become a living lab to practice different designs, combinations, and approaches.  Can I really plant directly into turf?  How can I achieve color or interest every week of the year in east Texas?  What will be a thug, and what worthwhile will need encouragement?
  3. A prairie will reflect the genius of the place.  Drive down our roads, and you see Liatris, Asclepias, Vernonia, Rudbeckia, Baptisia, Gaillardia, Delphinium, Hymenopappus, Echinacea, Callirhoe, Penstemon, and more all growing in a matrix of short grasses.  Why not concentrate this wild and have it right out my door?    
  4. I love seeing the wildlife flit and flirt across our micro-farm. It takes me back to my childhood chasing frogs at sunset or the first chrysalis I ever discovered.  Creating habitat for fauna of all kinds makes me feel like I’m doing good in this world, and as Noel Kingsbury recently argued is a core element of the designed plant community concept.  
  5. Karen wants a prairie, too.  (No, really!)  I realized I've made her a bit of a mulch snob when she comments on far apart spaced plants and the wasted space between. 

My mind has iterated through different locations on the property.  At first, I wanted the planting to be in our backyard surrounding a towering water oak, mainly because early on we were spending hours on our backporch.  But, with time living here, I eventually realized that to the west of our house beside our driveway would be the best location.  The spot is a beeline straight from our kitchen window, and standing at the sink I find myself gazing out and imagining what will be in bloom or seed.  The site gets full sun save for the last few waning hours of the day when shade is cast by a mature water oak and a teenage Taxodium.  The site slopes slightly to the west in a terrace-like fashion, and the lay of the land is perfect for catching morning light as the sun lifts above the distant thicket in the summer and the house later in the winter.  Also, the prairie will be visible from the road so that people will see the crazy things that plant doctor is doing.  

The space is rectangular and runs the western length of our driveway.  It’s about three times as long as it is wide, tapering a bit with the curve of the asphalt.  The length of the prairie warrants a vista, and I know I want to frame the view and have something at the north end draw one’s eye from the south where the road is.  Our edible patch is just beyond the prairie, and perhaps I can create a focal point near this space.  Not sure what yet though.  

The biggest question I’ve wrestled with this spring and summer is how to create an immersive experience in the prairie.  How do I design it to be tangible and imbibed?  Paths are the obvious answer and will allow the interaction with the plants from a variety of angles.  I considered different layouts including parallel lines, turf spaces that ebb and flow in size surrounding a sea of taller foliage, and even doing geometric shapes like the orchard plantings at Le Jardin Plume.  Finally, I decided on a curving path that winds through the area and eventually circles back on itself.  When the grass is tall, I envision curves hiding what’s next and creating a sense of mystery.  I’ve also envisioned resting spots along the path throughout the prairie made by circles where chairs and tables will allow one to stop and enjoy the creation.  

Like a light pencil on a blank canvas tracing guides for a greater work of art, I’ve used my riding mower to mow lines for various projects at our house to begin shaping spaces, and I’ve used the same approach with our prairie.  Yes, it probably sounds like hillbilly horticulture, but it works.  I set the mower blade a bit shorter than the rest of the grass and mow the lines I want.  Any errors of my ways will grow back.  Living out in the country affords me the opportunity to play around in ways in which a city dweller might receive a citation or gawks.  With the prairie, I mowed the path I had in mind.  I walked the length of it stopping and pausing to view certain perspectives and to see what I liked or didn't.  Then, the outline is there for several days to allow the mind to absorb, mellow, and consider different scenarios.  After a couple of runs, I’ve about got the path where I want it.  To create resting spots in the prairie, I stop along the path with the mower and start circling outwards till I feel the space is large enough.  Eventually, I will put a peg in the center and measure a circle with string.  

  Just some scribblings.  So that you could better see the paths and resting areas that I mowed, I colored them in on my iPad.  This view is looking north toward our fenced in edible patch, and you can see how the length beckons for shorter plants that will create a nice vista over the prairie.  

Just some scribblings.  So that you could better see the paths and resting areas that I mowed, I colored them in on my iPad.  This view is looking north toward our fenced in edible patch, and you can see how the length beckons for shorter plants that will create a nice vista over the prairie.  

To give the planting legibility, I will keep the turf next to the drive way.  Two mower passes from the drive gives me a swath about 8–10 feet wide .    This area will also allow people space to park along our drive when we have several visitors.  

The side of the prairie that runs along our western property line will be planted with woody species, mostly evergreens to complement the Quercus and Taxodium already there.  We’ve known we wanted a privacy wall since we moved, and the verdant height will serve as a foundation that will help the front flora pop.  A lone Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ is the start of more to come.  

The other woody species I want to add will help to further frame the prairie.  On the north and south ends, I want to plant fruit tree species to create an edge habitat, the height and spacing of which will quickly taper to a full sun planting in the center of the garden.  The north will get a mostly full circle of hybrid Asian/American persimmons I’m dying to try here in east Texas around one of the resting spots I mentioned earlier, and the south will get a groove of pawpaws.  

The other big question that I’m pondering is should the turf stay or should it go?  When Thomas Rainer spoke for us back in April, I showed him the area to be planted, and he asked me if I was going to plant directly into the grass and let the forbs and taller grasses take hold.  I told him I didn’t know, and I have since ruminated on that question.  I’d like to kill off everything because that gives me a clean slate.  But, the turf is dominated by centipede grass with some dreaded Bermuda scattered about.  That spawn of Satan I will be killing.  But, the centipede may act as a great groundcover to allow the transplants to get established and prevent various weeds from germinating.  

I’m saving the rest of the plant list for another post.  The cast of characters is still a work in progress and will likely be for the life of the planting.  I will say that the garden will be planted in phases, and I've already identified the north end as the first phase.  I’m in no hurry.  I’m propagating species here either by division of plants that I buy or find in the wild or from germinating and growing seed.  

In closing, I'll say all good prairies need a name.  I’ve chastened this area Prairie Lark, a play on words of one of my favorite avian species, the Eastern Meadowlark.  And, besides describing a passerine, lark also means "a source of or quest for amusement or adventure” and “to engage in harmless fun or mischief”.  

It's a perfect word for creating a prairie from scratch—an adventure with a little bit of fun and mischief mixed in.  

Anyone can grow plants

While we were visiting North Carolina, Karen met up with one of her friends at a local coffee shop.  I joined them, and her friend asked me an interesting question. Here’s a paraphrased version of the exchange.


Friend:  So, here’s a question about gardening.  Are there some people who just automatically fail at gardening?  You know, like how some people are tone-deaf and can’t sing?  

Jared:  Absolutely not.   To me, gardening is a lot like the movie Ratatouille (yes, I really went there…).  I believe gardening is like the running quote in the movie, “Anyone can cook." Anyone CAN grow plants.  The problem is they don’t fail enough.  Have you ever cooked a recipe that failed?

Friend:  Sure.

Jared:  Yea, we all have.  But, when people fail, they don’t stop cooking or say I’ll never eat again, right?

Friend:  Right, no.

Jared:  The big problem that people have with plants is that instead of viewing them as a craft, they view them as pets.  (She really engaged with this point).  When a plant is purchased, there’s an emotional connection with it because you are now somewhat responsible for this organism’s life.  You water it, light it, feed it, etc.  Then, if or when the plant dies, they view it as failure instead of a learning opportunity.  People tense up and instead of going through the pain of killing something, they say never again.  

Jared:  And, I get the affection.  I’ll never forget when my last sprig of my late great-grandfather’s sage plant died.  I was crushed, and talk about love for a plant!  But, I’m not going to stop gardening because of that failure.  


How many times have we gardeners had a form of this conversation with self-proclaimed brown thumbs, cactus killers, and funeral plant murders? 

But, can these agents of plant death really not grow plants?  I mean, I’ve had succulent leaves fall on my carpet and root with zero help on my part.  (I promise I clean!  It’s just when you overwinter 50 pots inside you miss a leaf or two on the floor...) 

I don’t think killing plants indicates a lack of potential ability.  Growing plants is something that one must learn.  There must be a willingness to push through failure and see failure differently. 

In so many other activities, time spent engaging with it is seen as practice.  Working with the craft and learning from failure will make you better.  But, the stumbling block for the amateur’s psyche is that plants are alive.  They aren’t a smeared painting, a grounded model airplane, a foul ball, a flat home brew, a wobbly bench, or a sloppy batch of baklava, which is still delicious by the way.  

If these inanimate objects fail, no big deal.  Deconstruct and remake.  Live and learn.  But, plants... the compost heap means you’re a failure as a human being.  

People know plants are living creatures, and they see them as pets.  When they see this living thing die, they feel responsible, and they view it as a reflection on their character.  And, to never relive failure again, they swear off growing plants.  

As an educator, I asked how do we change this?  I’ve had students day one indicate they can’t grow anything, and by the end of the semester their flora is thriving.  Are there a few nuggets of knowledge and hope we can sow in people's minds to help them on their growing adventure?

 

FAIL MORE AND LEARN FROM FAILURE

If people are turned off to gardening because they “can’t keep anything alive," the problem I see is they don’t fail enough.  Seth Godin talks about this concept with generating ideas, but it also extends into the world of crafts and hobbies. Often in crafts, we humans start looking for patterns to figure out what we are doing well.  Growing plants is like taking up any hobby or activity.  It’s unlikely you know how to do it the minute you jump on a bike or are thrown in the water, but you have to learn the motions.  I would encourage those amateurs who feel they are plant-deaf to look for patterns. 

You only grow plants in a dark room?  Ok, that might be a problem because most plants need light.

You don’t have holes in your decorative containers?  Ok, well that might be a problem because roots need oxygen.

You keep killing cacti that you think should be easy to grow?  Ok, maybe you should try something else.  Like basil.  That actually is easy to grow. 

 

Plants die, and that’s ok

Those of us who have leveled up in our horticulture powers have done so on the heaps of humus we've created.  I say that because we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of plants in our lives.  It’s ok!  (I chuckled writing that because maybe we’ve just become numb to their suffering?) 

Some species like sunflowers and poppies are programmed to die after they set seed.  No matter what you do, they are already courting death right out of the womb.  It's ok!  They’ve evolved to do that.  And, as you’re slaying plants left and right learning how to be a better gardener, their corpses don't clog the trash piles of the world like so many other hobbies and spending sprees.  They compost and return to the circle of life (cue The Lion King intro music).  It's ok!  

 

ASK FOR HELP

We need to be there for people.  Instead of being critical when someone thinks fertilizer really is plant food or when someone buys a painted succulent expecting it to stay that color, we need to help them out.    

One reason I think we might be gardeners is because early on we had the serendipity of success that helped to propel our green thumbs forward.  Maybe it was because we had a great-grandfather helping us plant tomatoes, or maybe a book on houseplants accelerated our knowledge.  

But, what would have happened if everything you grew right out of the gate had failed?  You might be quilting instead.  


You have to fail to learn, and see failure as just that.  A learning experience, not a measure of how good of a gardening guru you are.

What I say is true.  Anyone can grow plants, but only those who fail time and time again can be great.

The Azaleas on Gregory Bald

With the return of high summer and the longest days of the year, my mind drifts back to an incredible mountaintop experience I had just a week shy of the solstice some years ago.  

  The azaleas on Gregory Bald are breathtaking to witness in full bloom.  

The azaleas on Gregory Bald are breathtaking to witness in full bloom.  

Gregory Bald was this magical place that I heard about in graduate school, an Appalachian peak covered with azaleas that lights up in mid-June like an orange St. Elmo’s fire of Rhododendron cumberlandense (Cumberland azalea).  I had been cooped up for six months with a torn tendon in my right foot, and at night I would scour the internet looking to experience the wild beyond my bleak apartment walls.  The quote still burned into my brain seven years later from reading Hiking in the Smokies was, “This [hike] should be on the life list of any self-respecting hiker, gardener, or nature lover.”  I knew before I moved from Raleigh I had to experience this natural treasure.  But, when and how?

One day, that opportunity presented itself.  Sitting in the graduate office with my foot fully healed, I struck up a conversation with my friend Irene Palmer who casually mentioned that she and Tom Ranney’s crew were hiking up to Gregory Bald.  They were blooming early due to 2011 being a warmer than normal year.  

I was ecstatic.  For them at least.  She invited me to join, but I had errands and prep for an upcoming conference that were to fill the rest of my week and weekend. But, then the calendar in my head started moving the to-do’s around, and I realized that I actually had a free weekend if I could get the bulk done before their excursion.  

Friday after work, I drove to Asheville to spend the night.  The next morning, we headed toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of my absolute favorite places in the world as blog readers will likely recognize.  Traveling with me was Tom Ranney, esteemed plant breeder at North Carolina State University; his wife, Amira; Kevin Parris, horticulture instructor and arboretum director at Spartanburg Community College; and Tom's student crew and my good friends Jason Lattier, Kelly Oates, the previously mentioned Irene, and Kim Shearer.  The main purpose of the trip was to assess the Gregory Bald azaleas for Kim’s summer internship project focusing on better understanding their genetics.

We stopped at Chimney Tops on Saturday to do a little pre-hike to see what botanical interests we could find.  Climbing the steep crag made me feel like I was following my father’s footsteps.  Dad would often share with us on family trips through the Smokies that when he was a youngster he had hiked Chimney Tops.  Now, I was, too.  

  Looking down from Chimney Tops.  The Ericaceous  Kalmia  (mountain laurel) on the right are hints of other blooming plants to come.  

Looking down from Chimney Tops.  The Ericaceous Kalmia (mountain laurel) on the right are hints of other blooming plants to come.  

After summiting and returning to the trailhead, we travelled toward Cades Cove.  Traffic was heavy in spots as many tourists congregated to see the synchronized fireflies in the Smokies.  We, however, were there to see something botanical glow.   

  Crowds await travel into the park to see the synchronized fireflies.

Crowds await travel into the park to see the synchronized fireflies.

I think seeing the crowds for the lightning bugs inspired us to make some of our own lights in the mountains after dark.  We got several flashlights, I set up the long exposure on my camera, and we started making light art.

  Light art fascinates me.  I need to do more of it.  

Light art fascinates me.  I need to do more of it.  

  Kevin Parris tried his hand at drawing a  Rhododendron  flower, and I'd say he succeeded!  

Kevin Parris tried his hand at drawing a Rhododendron flower, and I'd say he succeeded!  


We woke well before dawn, clamored our campsite into the cars in the dark, and zoomed through Cades Cove in the civil twilight.  It cracked me up.  Every time I’ve travelled the eleven-mile loop in the past, it was slow going either because you were taking in the scenery from the valley or because you were following someone slow.  And, I’m sure for you readers who have ever been can attest that you, too, have sit in traffic while onlookers (or you) pause for deer and bear.  But, today our goal wasn’t the fauna in the valley but the flora on the top.  

  A quick pic from the car of the glorious Cades Cove at dawn.  

A quick pic from the car of the glorious Cades Cove at dawn.  

We travelled the gravel of Parson Branch Road.  At one point in particular I remember being told to not let off of the gas because of the steep incline my Ford Escape had to climb.  I recall leaning forward in the needless hope the car wouldn’t topple backwards.  

We arrived at the trailhead around daybreak ready for a four and a half mile hike to the summit of Gregory Bald.  After the hike from the day before, I felt every tenth-mile of the trek.  It was beautiful hiking through the forests of Appalachia, and along the way we paused to appreciate the flora from towering Magnolia to verdant seeps inhabited by Veratrum.

It seemed we had been walking forever when suddenly the forest broke away and the Rhododendrons appeared.  Staring at the orange orbs conjured thoughts of lava erupting from ancient couldrons.  

  WE MADE IT!!!  AND, THEY'RE BEAUTIFUL!!!  

WE MADE IT!!!  AND, THEY'RE BEAUTIFUL!!!  

We were a bit weary from our trek to go into full plant geek mode, so we rested and ate lunch before we began our explorations. 

  Evidently, we weren't the only ones hungry...

Evidently, we weren't the only ones hungry...

From our vantage point, we saw the loop in Cades Cove we had just raced through in the pre-dawn light.  It was a bit of an out of body experience for me.  So many years I’ve circled that road and looked to the surrounding peaks, sometimes stopping to enjoy a picnic with my family.  Now, in this shallow heaven, I was looking down and stuffing my face with a sandwich.   

  The light green in the valley below is Cades Cove.  

The light green in the valley below is Cades Cove.  

After lunch, we began to explore the bald like kids in a candy store with with each plant offering a new flavor of petal color—cherry red, butterscotch yellow, bubblegum pink, and orange... orange.  Then, there were other attributes to devour like sweet fragrance, licorice-colored stamens, colorful blotches, early and late flowering, and differing heights.  Here’s a few photos to make your mouth water.  

  I loved seeing the loners, little islands of orange surrounded by a sea of grass.  

I loved seeing the loners, little islands of orange surrounded by a sea of grass.  

  ...islands in the stream, that is what we are...

...islands in the stream, that is what we are...

  Here's a nice close up photo of the flowers of  Rhododendron cumberlandense .

Here's a nice close up photo of the flowers of Rhododendron cumberlandense.

  We encountered color variants in pink,...

We encountered color variants in pink,...

  ...apricot,...

...apricot,...

  ...peach,...

...peach,...

  ...lemon,...

...lemon,...

  ...and salmon.

...and salmon.

  Another loner.  Notice how the softer orange petal color echoed the tan of the surrounding grass panicles.

Another loner.  Notice how the softer orange petal color echoed the tan of the surrounding grass panicles.

  Occasionally, we spotted some plants with galls on them.  

Occasionally, we spotted some plants with galls on them.  

  One plant I found had buds still unopened, and getting up close made me weak in the knees.  They look so cool, like little flames licking the sky and waiting to burst into full-flowering conflagration.  

One plant I found had buds still unopened, and getting up close made me weak in the knees.  They look so cool, like little flames licking the sky and waiting to burst into full-flowering conflagration.  

  Pollinators were working these shrubs left and right.  

Pollinators were working these shrubs left and right.  

  I bet that bee on the right is saying, "WHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"  I mean, who doesn't want to slide on some stamens?

I bet that bee on the right is saying, "WHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"  I mean, who doesn't want to slide on some stamens?

So, how does this magical place, this garden of Eden even exist? 

  A narrow path leads through the grass matrix surrounding the fiery-colored azaleas.  

A narrow path leads through the grass matrix surrounding the fiery-colored azaleas.  

We should first address the absence of the trees that allow for other species to grow and give the balds their name.  For many years, the origins and persistence of these fascinating ecosystems have been debated, but the current hypothesis from Weigl and Knowles is that these grass and forb dominated patches originated due to glaciation and were maintained by herbivores.  The cold made the the high mountain tops unsuitable for woodies, and during warming periods when plants reclaimed the peaks, herbivores—megafauna and their modern ancestors—topped woody flora with munching and trampling.  Similar ecosystems in the Pacific northwest and the Poloninas in Europe support this hypothesis.  

  One end of the bald had more trees and shrubs growing around the azaleas, a step towards succession.  Here, blueberries dominate.  

One end of the bald had more trees and shrubs growing around the azaleas, a step towards succession.  Here, blueberries dominate.  

The bald created a place for the azaleas to grow, but why were there so many azaleas here?  We had only seen a few of the deciduous rhodies on our trek up, and yet here there were hundreds in full bloom.  And, not just one color but many variations on the warm hues.  One hypothesis is that the azaleas have climbed by seeding themselves, scaled the mountain with warming temperatures, and hold the last high ground against the advancing forests.  Others have made the case that this colorful collection is an example of gardening the wild and that many years ago settlers moved azaleas they adored to the top of the mountains.  The shrubs that we see today are relics from this pioneer gardening or those plants' offspring from an earlier time.  

  The silvery foliage of a ground-hugging  Salix  (or, that's what our best guess was) played as a nice foil to the orange azaleas.  

The silvery foliage of a ground-hugging Salix (or, that's what our best guess was) played as a nice foil to the orange azaleas.  

Either way that the azaleas arrived on top of Gregory Bald, they form a hybrid swarm.  Sinister-sounding, but quite harmless.  It is a way of describing how the genetics move in the plant population.  Most people think of evolution and the movement of traits between species as a tree.  You start at the base and climb upward, and every so often there is a branch where some new trait or species arises.  But, for some genera like Rhododendron that readily hybridize, the movement of plant traits is more like those rope jungle gyms that you used played in as a kid.   Traits can jump from where there are knots in a rope as long as there is a bridge between them.  Kim’s summer internship project focused on better understanding how these bridges might exist.  For example, Rhododendron cumberlandense and Rhododendron arborescens (sweet azalea) are separate species that occur on Gregory Bald, and the identification of several plants that show intermediate characteristics helped to support genetic movement between species.  If you want to learn more, check out her insightful paper here.

  Here's a nice example of an azalea showing intermediate characteristics.  While the exact parentage is unknown, hints of pink from  Rhododendron arborescens  appear to mingle with the orange from  Rhododendron cumberlandense .

Here's a nice example of an azalea showing intermediate characteristics.  While the exact parentage is unknown, hints of pink from Rhododendron arborescens appear to mingle with the orange from Rhododendron cumberlandense.

I unfortunately had to leave the group early as I had a six hour drive ahead of me to get back to Raleigh.  It was the experience of a lifetime with good friends, and I want to go back.  

  This scene could all be forest.  But, it's not, and that enriches life.

This scene could all be forest.  But, it's not, and that enriches life.

And, I hope I can return and see the azaleas and the bald.  Researchers believe that if we don’t intervene, the balds will one day become reforested and disappear.  On some balds, encroachment from the trees is already a management issue for maintaining these ecosystems.  Granted, some might argue that succession towards forest is nature taking its course, but I think it is important to maintain these ecosystems for the diversity of the Appalachians and for people to have these incredible plant experiences that help us appreciate the beautiful web of life and to garner inspiration for our gardens.

Echinacea Named Tennessee

Echinacea tennesseensis (Tennessee coneflower) is beginning to bloom in our SFA student garden here in east Texas.  Plants that we started over two years ago as class projects have returned yet again and are flowering their little heads off.

  I must admit, when  Echinacea tennesseensis  first bloomed I was amazed at how floriferous it was!  

I must admit, when Echinacea tennesseensis first bloomed I was amazed at how floriferous it was!  

It's one of my favorite native wildflowers, but I'm a bit biased, being a native from the great volunteer state.  You can easily identify this member of the aster family apart from the other nine or so species of Echinacea that are native to the US. Their inflorescences face east once mature, and the ray florets ascend to the sun instead of drooping like the petals on most other coneflowers.  This plant embodies such a great metaphor for life.  Start every day gazing at dawn and reaching toward the sky; I can get behind that.  Or, in front of that I should say as this trait does force us to consider where to situate it in gardens.  It must be planted on the eastern flank.  Siting it to the west will cause you to only see the backstage of the inflorescences and leave you unable to enjoy the full performance.  

  Can you spy the east-facing  Echinacea tennesseensis  'Rocky Top' in this incredible planting at Chanticleer's elevated walkway?  Hint, it's on the right.  Compare these blooms where the ray florets curve upward with the typical  Echinacea  at the back left of the image whose outer rays droop.  

Can you spy the east-facing Echinacea tennesseensis 'Rocky Top' in this incredible planting at Chanticleer's elevated walkway?  Hint, it's on the right.  Compare these blooms where the ray florets curve upward with the typical Echinacea at the back left of the image whose outer rays droop.  

Of course, it's a bit of a miracle that we still have this delightful perennial with us.  Tennessee coneflower is only found in a few counties in Tennessee, and if heroic stewards hadn't stepped in to save it, our world would be less colorful.  It was discovered in 1878 by Augustin Gattinger, and less than a century later in 1961 its absence in field surveys led some researchers to claim it extinct.  Later in the 60's it was rediscovered; however, survival wasn't guaranteed as the land some populations inhabited was cleared to make way for trailer parks and housing developments.  We have people like the late Dr. Elise Quarterman to thank for advocating for this species's livelihood.  Efforts from her and others helped the plant become listed on the endangered species list, one of the first flora ever.  This attention led to areas where Echinacea tennesseensis occurred being protected, and with enough populations safe, the species was delisted in 2011, certainly a success story for horticulture and humankind's intervention.

The endemism is a peculiar subject.  Why is such a floriferous species isolated to just a few counties in Tennessee?  Sure, humans destroyed a few sites, but it seems that it never had the wide distribution that some of the other Echinacea genera enjoy.  The current hypothesis is that the species arose during the hypsithermal interval, a period of climatic warming and drying that occurred around 5000—8000 years ago.  Drier conditions opened the woodlands of middle Tennessee and allowed the colonization of prairie species like our Echinacea.  When the climate cooled and became more moist, forests began to reclaim the land, and this stress-tolerant species began to decline in numbers.  Walck et al. (2002) state that its narrow endemism is due to several factors—seed-based reproduction; large seeds that aren't animal or wind dispersed; self sterility; intolerance of shading; a lack of seed persistence in the soil, and few individuals making it to adulthood in the wild.  All these characteristics would have limited its dispersal from middle Tennessee.  

The xeric-adapted nature of established plants is quite apparent in the root systems. Earlier this spring I had to move some Echinacea tennesseensis, and I was very surprised to discover massive, deep taproots on plants that were only one year old.  Unearthing knowledge about roots (in a literal and figurative sense!) is always exciting, like discovering buried treasure.  I expected to see more rhizomatous roots like those on Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) that I've transplanted much of my life .  The soil had mostly sloughed off one taproot, so I rinsed it to get a better look.  Near the crown it was as thick as a plump carrot!   From there, the chthonic organ divided with depth, but the roots were still stout.  (Yes, most of the transplants survived in case you are wondering.)

  I learn so much each time I expose roots.  Here, plump taproots on  Echinacea tennesseensis  likely help the plant survive stressful times during the year and store resources for the coming bloom.  

I learn so much each time I expose roots.  Here, plump taproots on Echinacea tennesseensis likely help the plant survive stressful times during the year and store resources for the coming bloom.  

  A close up of the crown of  Echinacea tennesseensis .  The pink tinge in the lower wrapper leaves are hints of colors yet to come.  

A close up of the crown of Echinacea tennesseensis.  The pink tinge in the lower wrapper leaves are hints of colors yet to come.  

I'm already applying this new anatomical knowledge to our propagation culture.  This spring, we currently have over 10 deep-celled propagation trays of Echinacea tennesseensis that my student team has grown.  Seeing the deep taproot was insight to not keep the plants in the trays for too long.  

While it is beautiful to see in the gardens, I hope one day to see this Echinacea named Tennessee in its provincial habitat.  Perhaps at daybreak with their heads basking in the new glow of the day and me basking in the existence of such a great species for our plantings.