Dr. Jared reflects on his visit to Northwind Perennial Farm and the wisdom Roy Diblik shared about perennial plantings.Read More
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today, we mowed the food prairies, our prototype herbaceous plantings at SFA. I was hoping to wait till January 22nd to have a lab the first week of class and teach students about mowing naturalistic plantings. However, with the warm weather the underplanted Narcissus × odorus had flower buds emerging from the soil. This problem is one I outlined in detail in a previous post.
I did get to show Anna Claire and Jevon, two of our Plantery student apprentices how mowing is accomplished. For clearing the vegetation, I was inspired last year from a video Austin Eischeid posted to just raise a push mower on the highest setting and rev it into action.
This year is our second mowing of the food prairies, and it went off without a hitch. It took about 40 minutes to mow 650 square feet, but that includes some down time to refill the mower with gas.
I prefer to mow when we can because the ground up residue provides a mulch that prevents weed growth for much of the rest of the growing season. Even late into the fall of 2018 I was able to find ground up grass clippings from the January 2018 mowing.
And, we were able to find Narcissus × odorus buds still intact after the cut. Mission accomplished.
Oh, and here’s a video from last year if you want to see the process. Yes, our students do really mow that fast.
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.
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.
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'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.