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.

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.