Reflections on Autumn Vegetable Garden

Happy New Year, everyone!  While January 1st marks a pivotal point on everyone’s calendar, those of us who dabble in season extension recognize yet another threshold of the year—the point where daylight drops below 10 hours a day.  While it varies based on latitude, the period for those of us along the 36th parallel starts around the week of Thanksgiving and continues till mid-January.  It’s so important for those who continue to grow vegetables during winter that Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm has deemed it the Persephone period.   Plant growth slows considerably during this time due to less light, and while 10 hours of light is certainly not a fixed number for all species, one hopes to have most things planted prior to this point so that they can grow, bulk up, and then be harvested in late autumn and winter.  This practice is essentially what we do with fall crops.

Thus, with the new year and the recent start of winter, I thought it a fitting time to reflect on the autumn vegetable garden.  It was a pleasant autumn. (Ok, there was that one night I used my headlights to install a floating row cover, and my car battery died.)  Temperatures haven’t been too extreme, but we have had some below freezing nights in NC.  (Thus, installing that floating row cover was worth the effort!)  Rainfall has been hit or miss, but with the addition of a hose and spigot at the community garden plot this year, fluctuations in precipitation haven’t been as much a concern.  Another plus has been my friend Deanna has been helping me in the garden.  Coming from an ag background, she wanted to work in a garden and said spending time out there is the highlight of her week!  Music to my ears.

Cole Crops

Once again, ‘Winterbor’ kale has been a superb performer.  I have been making zuppa toscana (Olive Garden copycat recipe) and kale chips with a handful of leaves harvested here and there.

The AMAZING zuppa tuscana.  Seriously, make this recipe.

The AMAZING zuppa tuscana. Seriously, make this recipe.  The green wavy things are sliced kale leaves.

For those of us who have tried kale chips, we know how addictive they are.  For those of you who have not, don’t be afraid.  I find that offering a small bite causes mouths turned up to quickly open in earnest for more.  I’m happy that kale is a staple of mine throughout winter so that I can continue cooking with it.  Of all that I planted in late summer, it is the one crop I expect to continue shrugging off the cold temps with no problem and thrive right into spring.

Broccoli was very productive this fall.  Most plants produced heads the diameter of softballs or larger, and then we had a smaller yet equally delectable harvest of the side shoots that form after the apical leader is removed.  The plants finally succumbed to the cold.

The two broccoli cultivars I grew 'Premium Crop' and 'Packman' did exceptionally well.

The two broccoli cultivars I grew ‘Premium Crop’ and ‘Packman’ did exceptionally well.

After harvesting the main head, side shoots appear on broccoli.

After harvesting the main head, side shoots appear on broccoli.

The savoy cabbages produced heads the size of baseballs to softballs, and I made an excellent roasted savoy cabbage dish with them, topped with apples, pecans, and dried cherries.  It was superb straight out of the oven but not as good once refrigerated and warmed up.

Cabbage loopers weren’t too much of a problem.  A few dustings of the organic Dipel helped control their numbers.

Lettuce

I continued my fun with trialing lettuce cultivars this fall.  Per usual, ‘Jericho’ and ‘Buttercrunch’ performed well and tasted delicious.  The former was bred in Israel to be tolerant of heat and dry conditions.  I was surprised to see some frost burn on the plants when we dropped from 60°F to 27°F over the course of a day.  But, I removed the outer leaves and the inner hearts were still good.

'Jericho' lettuce is one of the first cultivars I plant in the fall due to it's heat tolerant nature.

‘Jericho’ lettuce is one of the first cultivars I plant in the fall due to its heat tolerance.

A new cultivar that I trialed and had great success with was ‘Tom Thumb’.  The heads favor a chartreuse double rose.  I will never grow ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ again.  Both back in Tennessee and here in North Carolina it seems to be good for a day and then turn terribly bitter.  My quest continues for bitterless lettuce.

A mixed salad

A mixed salad with lettuce and other greens.

Swiss Chard

I had hoped for tons of Swiss chard this fall, but voles ate probably a third of the plants.  Nevertheless, we still had enough for a few salads.  I’m amazed at how good it tastes in salads and how beautiful it looks in them, too.  I just harvest the leaves young and remove the midrib.

As you can see, the petioles of Swiss chard cultivars like 'Bright Lights' are quite colorful!

As you can see, the petioles of Swiss chard cultivars like ‘Bright Lights’ are quite colorful!

A salad primarily made of Swiss chard

A salad made of just Swiss chard is colorful and delicious.

* * *

Before I left North Carolina for the holidays, I tucked the beds in with the floating row cover, and I look forward to returning to see how things are growing.  You see, I also have spinach, corn salad, carrots, and a few other greens planted under cover.  AND!  Before we left for the holidays, we installed a brand new 24-foot-long bed and sowed it with spinach and other hardy winter greens.  I’ll cover these cold tolerant crops in a later post.   

The east bed uncovered reveals much more action to come for the winter garden.

The east bed uncovered reveals much more action to come for the winter garden.

We prepped and planted the west bed all over the course of a cold December morning.

We prepped and planted the west bed all over the course of a cold December morning.

Until next time, keep growing!

Autumn Snowdrops at Montrose

The weather the Sunday afternoon that followed Thanksgiving—55°F with a sunny, bluebird sky—was perfect for a dusting of white on the ground.  Now, in case you are wondering I’m not off my rocker for I speak not of the snow that comes from the sky but “snow” that comes out of the ground in the form of snowdrops.

Closeup of snowdrops.

Closeup of autumn snowdrops.  I love how the petals of the inner perianth have the green upside down heart on them.  Or, viewed from the side it appears as a green Pacman!  

My friends Alice, Keith, and Kim have traveled with me to Hillsborough, NC to see one of the rare forms of snowdrops at Montrose, a historic garden tended by Nancy Godwin and her husband Craufurd.  While most snowdrops typically start flowering later in winter, these autumn snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii var. monostictuscan be in full flower sometime around Thanksgiving, a full month or two earlier than other Galanthus. Nancy describes the weather as a “miracle” and confirms that the snowdrops are looking superb.  We are some of the earliest of the sixty or so visitors to descend on the gardens for the snowdrop walk, and our prompt arrival has ensured us Nancy as our head guide.

Nancy leads our group through Montrose.

Nancy stops our group briefly at Montrose to give us a teaser of the tour.

As we approach the back of the garden, excitement began to build as THOUSANDS of snowdrops come into view.

2013 1201 Montrose-NC (4)

GASP!  It almost looks like a dusting of snow, doesn’t it?

asdf

While they can be appreciated while standing, the diminutive size of snowdrops beckons gardeners to humble themselves upon the earth to appreciate their beauty, much like we see Kim doing here.  

Nancy was keen to lead us along the path to highlight her favorite views, which finally crescendoed into us viewing the plants with the sunlight to our backs and the snowdrops in our front, a perfect angle for the light to play off the flowers well.  She tells us that in 1987 she acquired 12 bulbs from a local seed store for less than a dollar, and by happenstance they were this rare variety.  She started the mass planting two images above in November 2002 and has helped it enlarge via division.  She made the comment that she’s glad she bought the bulbs.  We are, too. We are then lead through the woods where a large, long drift (perhaps a 1/10 of a mile long?) has been planted, and along the path Nancy points out a few Cyclamen coum that have just started flowering.  However, most need not be in bloom to be attractive as the leaves on some cyclamen appear as if ornately arrayed shields of green, gray, and white.

The long drift pulls you into the woods to see just how far it goes.

The long drift pulls you into the woods to see just how far it goes.

Some of the diversity in Cyclamen foliage along the path through the woods.

Some of the diversity in Cyclamen foliage along the path through the woods.  The leaves look like little shields scattered upon the forest floor.

For me, snowdrops mark a turning point in the year, evidence that even though winter is here, spring approaches.  Many gardeners are fascinated by these winter bloomers to the point of obsession.  I’m not there yet, but I hold with Christopher Lloyd as he wrote in Garden Flowers, “We all of us need more snowdrops in our gardens”, and “[s]nowdrops are graceful, welcoming, sheer delight and I fail to see how one could have too many of them.” If you’ve never seen them before, the pictures included here will certainly help.  When visuals are absent, I describe the plants as diminutive street lights, the white perianth dangling from six-inch scapes, much like a lantern might have hung from posts in days of old.

2013 1201 Montrose-NC (6)

Galanthus flowers hang like lanterns on hooks.  While they produce no foot candles, they certainly brighten winter.

The lantern comment brings to mind a story I once heard in a sermon.  Robert Louis Stevenson as a child was sickly.  One evening, the nurse came to check on him and found him sitting near the window watching the lamplighter.  The nurse hastened him to get back in bed, but he was mesmerized by the lamplighter who he said was “poking holes in the darkness.” For me that’s what snowdrops do.  They poke holes in the darkness of winter.  And, now that I have one of these early flowering forms from Montrose, I suppose these “lamps” will brighten winter even earlier. Until next time, keep growing!

Fall at Graveyard Fields

The first thought that went through my head at the sight of the fall foliage was “Ah!!!  My heart is stolen!”

Or, perhaps that’s what I said.  I was so awestruck I can’t remember.  And, now I find myself asking, “What does that mean anyway?”  Well, let’s see.

The past four days I had been in Appalachian country with my family for our annual autumn meet up.  It was mid-October, too early for peak color, but that didn’t keep us from having fun.

As our great vacation came to an end and we said our goodbyes, I drove off and began to toy with the idea to take the four hour trek back to Asheville through the Smokies and then onto the Blue Ridge Parkway instead of the interstate.  I-40 offered a faster trip, but this scenic route offered the promise of more color and more autumn-flavored music like Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons.  Plus, with the completion of my graduate degree, I wasn’t sure when I’d be back again to enjoy the mountains. 

Driving through the Smokies, the color was hit or miss.  But, once on the parkway, I hit jackpot as the view came out of no where like a childhood game of duck, duck, goose.  Green, green, green, COLOR!!! 

2013-10-14_288

COLOR!!!

I was ready to jump out of my seat and out of the car; however, a parking spot didn’t immediately present itself.  As I passed the valley where the view opened up, I temporarily lost it when I rounded the corner.  “Next turn around I’m coming back to see that again!” Then, I saw the Graveyard Fields parking lot ahead.  “Even better.” 

For those of you unfamiliar with this part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields (milepost 418.8) is a popular spot along the parkway.  While internet sources vary on the origin of the name, one printed reference I found stated a large fire blazed some 25,000 acres in 1925 and left only stumps.  These ghosts of the trees resembled tombstones in a graveyard (Logue et al., 2010).  Now, small trees and scrub dominate.

The pull off was a flutter.  As I donned my hiking boots, one lady prepared a canvas for painting while a dozen or so young hikers made preparations for a hefty hike, evidenced by their backpacks and sleeping pads.

2013-10-14_51

After I parked, the clouds came in. Heaven.

2013-10-14_68

It’s as if their hands of vapor were reaching down to give the performing flora high fives.

After snapping a few (ahem) a lot of photos in the parking lot, I headed south along the parkway.  The vantage point along the roadside was much better.  

The best thing about images like these is the zoom function called trails, and whether worn or blazed anew, they offer the photographer the chance to step out from behind the camera and go see every living pixel to comprehend the picture’s underlying composition.

I zoomed to “zoom in.”  Time was short since it was late afternoon, but I made it far enough along the trail to feel immersed in this beautiful creation.  Sorbus and Acer species provided towers of color while the lower cover was ablaze with Vaccinium and Viburnum. 

2013-10-14_164

The trail through Graveyard Fields.

2013-10-14_149

A closeup of the ember-colored foliage of Vaccinium constablaei.  (Thanks to renown blueberry expert Dr. Jim Ballington for the id.)

2013-10-14_273

Condensation droops on the blue drupes of Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides.

2013-10-14_256

Some Viburnum sported drupes in both colors.

2013-10-14_241

Cratageus drupes colored in their autumn regalia.

2013-10-14_214

The trail continued, but this point is where I stopped.  The sun was setting, and I had miles to go.

As I walked out, I soaked in as much as I could before the trip home.  I recall thinking multiple times on this venture that if everyone could see this sight, they would all be naturalists or gardeners.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

I asked myself how can we as gardeners reproduce vistas like Graveyard Fields?  What really made the view was diversity and repetition of that diversity.  Trees + autumn color + stream + ember-colored scrub = autumn awesomeness.

I’m constantly amazed at how when I go into these natural places in the world how much of an impression they leave on me.  They resonate.

What does “My heart is stolen!” mean? Perhaps it means I left a part of myself in that place and hope for more encounters with vistas like Graveyard Fields in the future.

Until next time, keep growing!

Logue, F. V. Logue, and N. Blouin.  2010.  Guide to the Blue Ridge Parkway, 3rd ed.  Mensha Ridge Press, Birmingham, AL.

Autumn Palette on a Pallet

Fall helps us appreciate foliar diversity.  During the growing season, leaves in a myriad of shapes and sizes surround us.  However, when they are all aglow in autumn with newly revealed colors—a last triumphant “Hurrah!” before winter if you will—it’s seems we are even more perceptive of the variety within the plant kingdom.

While the wilds offer great exploring for local fall color, arboreta allow us to travel around the world in a few hours, visually sampling plants from across the globe  I made a venture out to the JC Raulston Arboretum to photograph specimen plants in their autumn regalia.  I collected leaves from some of my favorite specimens for a composite shot to better appreciate the different colors and forms.  For displaying them, I found a nifty wooden pallet for a rustic background.  Identities are below if you’d like to try your plant id skills.  And, of course, no trees were hurt in the making of this leaf collection.  :-)

2013-11-14 PS NoY-624

Top row, L to R:  Tilia cordata ‘Winter Orange’, Cladrastis kentukea ‘Perkins Pink’, Asimina triloba, Lindera chienii, Ginkgo biloba (2 leaves), & Magnolia ‘Elisa Odenwald’.

Middle row, L to R: Calycanthus × raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine’, Liriodendron chinense ‘J.C. Raulston’, Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Jelena’, Lagerstroemia limii (2 leaves), Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’, Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, & Sassafras tzumu.

Bottom row, L to R:  Lindera reflexa, Fothergilla × intermedia ‘Mount Airy’ (2 leaves), Sassafras albidum (2 leaves, more diversity from Allen Bush’s article on the species), Acer palmatum × A. circinatumDiospyros kaki, Nyssa sylvatica ‘Autumn Cascades’.

Until next time, keep growing!

Some Assembly Required

Here’s an opinion for ya.  I’m finicky about garden art.  Perhaps skittish is a better word.  But, not all garden art mind you; I say the more naturalistic, organic, and raw, the better.  Patrick Dougherty’s stickwork seems to grow out of the earth, and the molded glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly appear to have been formed underground like ancient, gnarled relics after millions of years of exposure to heat and pressure.  I find pieces like these very pleasing to the eye.

But, for other abstract artwork, I find myself disconnected.  (Ok, yes, Chihuly’s work is somewhat unnatural, but here’s another fact about me—I LOVE glass.  Thus, even his wildest creations are an exception.)  Perhaps the pieces I find distasteful just have poor placement?  I do find myself asking the same question as if the installation were just a plant out of place—what is THIS doing here?!?

While I have my prejudices, a recently installed exhibit at The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville was as far from natural as one can get.  And, yet it mesmerized me, enchanted me, and transported me back to my childhood.

Let me set the stage.  As I emerged from the parking lot, I saw two sculptures resembling bison on a hilltop.  The silhouettes stood stolid against the setting sun, much like the shadows their living predecessors might have cast years ago.  But, from a distance, I couldn’t determine their composition or their purpose.  I went to investigate.  As I approached the replicas, I discovered that they were made of Legos!

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (26)

Lego bison!

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (1)

Look at the detail!

YES, Legos!!!  They were comprised entirely of Legos!  And, the forms were made with artful precision.  Blocks were perfectly placed to mimic shadows on the animals or transitions between different fur colors.  In an instant my childhood passions of gardening and tinkering with Legos and other building blocks temporarily recrossed paths.

At first, I thought these faux-ruminants were sole installations, but soon I found another installation—lily pads.  My romp through the garden had now become a mapless treasure hunt as I scurried off looking for more artwork.  (Never did I ever think I’d say I was more excited about finding art pieces in a garden than plants.)  Here’s all I discovered.

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (2)

Lego lily pad and flower, perhaps based on Victoria amazonica?

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (27)

What does the fox say!?! “Ow ow ow ow ow ow-ow!” It is stepping on Legos after all.

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (8)

In the world of Legos, even predator/prey relationships exist. 

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (29)

Giant Lego model of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (30)

Detail of the wing. It’s amazing how reminiscent these Legos are of the actual scales on butterfly wings.

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (5)

It’s germination time!

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (18)

Giant Lego Ruby-throated Hummingbird

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (15)

Lego lawnmower

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (13)

These Lego sculptures certainly made a splash!

The information center was closed, so I had to rely upon my phone to find out more about these creations.  A quick internet search revealed that this exhibit was entitled Nature Connects by Sean Kenney (or Some Assembly Required by The North Carolina Arboretum).  The former link gives incredible detail about how some of the pieces were created.  I don’t believe the exhibit was fully installed since I visited a few days early before the grand opening.  I only found 11 of the reported 27 pieces touring with the exhibit.  It’s possible I missed some inside, too.

And, even if the sculptures were plastic, the Legos molded by machines, and the installation as far from natural as possible, it toyed with my emotions, entertained me, and made me think about how what I had seen reflected on life making it undoubtedly art.  As I left that day I pondered what are the building blocks of a garden?  And, especially after this piece—

2013 1011 NC Arboretum-NC (14)

—what are the building blocks of a gardener?  I have been trying to piece together the answers to that question for some time in the hopes of cultivating more green thumbs.  As with most great endeavors in life like fueling passions or creating art, an instruction manual is no where to be found; however, that hasn’t stop me or countless others yet.  Sometimes we are just given the pieces, and assembly is required.

Until next time, keep growing!

Plant Extroverts for Autumn!

In late August I traveled to Oregon to give a talk at the Farwest Trade Show.  The experience was fantastic as I learned about plants in a different part of the country while spending time with friends, both new and old, who had lively and fun personalities that truly made the trip even better.

Riz Reyes and Crystal Cady organized a young professional hangout at Xera Plants during the Farwest Show.

My friends Riz Reyes and Crystal Cady organized an entertaining young professional hangout at Xera Plants during the Farwest Show.

Of course, they weren’t the only great personalities there as I saw some lively and energetic plants.  You may be wondering why I’m personifying plants, but In my talk “Plant Extroverts! Wonderful Woodies and Praiseworthy Perennials,” I made the case that plants with “personality” can bring vitality and energy to lifeless landscapes.  However, as with all talks, time is the enemy, and inevitably some great plants are going to get cut.  The following plants are absolutely stellar for autumn, but because they lacked hardiness or didn’t have the multi-seasonal oomph that many of the others do, they were put on hold until another opportunity (like this blog post) presented itself.

* * *

Muhlenbergia capillaris (pink muhly grass) is quite reserved for most of the year.  That is until the airs cools, and the plant erupts in plumes of panicles.  From a distance they resemble pink cotton candy slightly moistened by a humid day.  (It is fair season after all!)  But, people don’t give this plant a fair chance because it just looks like a common roadside grass for most of the year.  That is until now when everyone wants to know what this decadent looking plant is.

2011-10-02_97

Muhlenbergia capillaris (pink muhly grass) at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.

2011-10-02_102

When you go to the fair, lick some cotton candy and see if the color isn’t close. Go on.

While pink muhly grass is eye candy but not very palatable, Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris Cicla group) gives us both beauty and delicacy.  ‘Bright Lights’ is popular because of the kaleidoscope of colors found in the petiole and leaf veins, but other cultivars I’ve grown like ‘Ruby Red’ & ‘Neon Glow’ are just as colorful.  Swiss chard makes a beautiful, delicious salad.  The plants will usually last for me till around Christmas without the leaves getting too bitter, and as a biennial it will flower the following spring.  I usually cut away the midrib and use the rest of the leaf blade.

2011 0917 Paul Ciener Botanical Garden.NC (28)

The petioles of many Swiss chard cultivars are incredibly colored.

2013-01-23

And, Swiss chard makes a great salad!

Salvias erupt into bloom in the fall, and my friend Adrienne Roethling took full advantage of their autumnal nature last year when she installed a display right along the street in downtown Kernersville at the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden.

2012 0808 Ciener Botanic Garden (14)

The Salvia border just beginning to get cranking in early August.

2012-10-11_73

The same border at the height of its performance two months later on 10 October 2012.  How incredible!

The Salvia that piqued my interest the most was a cultivar of Salvia madrensis (forsythia sage).  The flowers are yellow and resemble forsythia that blooms in the spring, which is the likely origin of the common name as I doubt William Forsyth had anything to do with the plant.  The particular cultivar that she had in the beds was ‘Red Neck Girl’, which sounds more like a country music song (Thank you Gretchen Wilson) than a plant cultivar, but I appreciate the creativity.

Salvia madrensis 'Red Neck Girl' (forsythia sage)

Salvia madrensis ‘Red Neck Girl’ (forsythia sage).

'Cause

“Cause I’m a ‘Red Neck Girl,’ I ain’t no high class sage.”

Another favorite sage of mine is Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ (Mexican sage).  The blue flowers are an exceptional contrast against the chartreuse calyxes.  

2009-10-03_62

Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ shines in the limelight during autumn.

Two of my favorite autumn flowering plants are fairly late to come into bloom and may get caught by frost before flowering in some regions of the US.  The first is Gladiolus dalenii ‘Halloweenie’ (parrot beak gladiolus), and it’s a real treat.  Most of the year the only presence the plant has in the garden is its sword-shaped leaves.  That is until the flowers erupt into bloom in mid-autumn.  Fun fact: Gladiolus is Latin for small sword.  Sounds kind of like the sword-toting “gladiator,” too, huh?  

2009-11-20_18

Gladiolus dalenii ‘Halloweenie’ silhouetted against one of autumn’s glorious bluebird skies.

Gladiolus dalenii 'Halloweenie'

How’s this for a trick?  Gladiolus dalenii ‘Halloweenie’ dusted with snow on 04 December 2010.

The other plant that pushes the freeze envelope is Dahlia imperialis (giant tree dahlia). The plant flowers in November here in Raleigh, so it’s limited for use in northern climes.  But, you CAN get it to flower up north if you do something extreme like cover it with a trash can every day like my friend Joseph Tychonievich did!   Even if it never flowered, the plant can tower 10-12 feet over the course of a growing season, and this herbaceous giant’s great stature and compound foliage provides an excellent background in the garden.  And, once the buds open, the flowers—lilac rays with a butter yellow disk—are magnets for bees.  Perhaps it’s just that great, or perhaps it’s the one of the last restaurants open as we head toward winter.

2009-11-20_17

Standing (not laying) underneath one of Dahlia imperialis’s imperial inflorescences. How many bees do you count? I see at least a dozen.

* * *

Until next time, keep growing!

Rhododendron vaseyi at The Southern Highlands Reserve and on the Blue Ridge Parkway

An attitude of preservation has saved some truly wonderful treasures in the south, from old homes to ancient churches. While most of these artifacts are made from inanimate brick and wood, a few are alive. Such is the case for The Southern Highlands Reserve, a biological ark whose mission is to preserve, educate, and propagate the incredible diversity of the southern Appalachians. For on these eroded pinnacles grow species unique to the southeast—some rare, some only occurring in a few counties, and some relics of the last ice age.

The headquarters at Southern Highlands Reserve also is a museum of sorts of Appalachian history and houses folk-made items as well as artifacts.

The headquarters at The Southern Highlands Reserve also serve as a museum of sorts of Appalachian history.

And, as someone who loves the south and plants, I knew I had to visit. For this recent trip, I was joined by my friends Dominic, Winston, and Tom Ranney and two of his coworkers at the Mountain Crop Improvement Lab. We arrived after our cars climbed a windy road through a private development and found the gardens imbued with spring freshness under a clear, bluebird sky. The tour started in the incredible Chestnut Lodge where we learned that the gardens were once slated to become 22 lots for development until Robert and Betty Balentine, who conveniently live right across the road, stepped in and decided that they would rather preserve nature than see it destroyed. 

Even though it is “young,” the unique mission and climate of the gardens has already reached international renown as during our tour we learned that they have hosted visitors from far away places such as Kew Gardens and Belgium.  And, once outside we saw that even though the landscape has been freshly molded by the hands of man, it looked mature for its age since many large trees remain. And, it’s no surprise that the flora does well here. The gardens receive around 90 inches of rain a year here, which classifies it as a temperate rainforest! It’s an ecosystem I first learned existed in North Carolina when I visited Highlands several years ago, and it shouldn’t have surprised me since we were only an hour northeast of there.  Nevertheless, there’s something about hearing the word rainforest that enchants the mind and conveys something tropical.

But, this ecosystem is far from the tropics.  A cool spring has bridled flowering, and only a few species were in flower at this time of the year. Phlox stolonifera carpeted the floor while a few scapes of Dicentra exima pulsed out of the green. Flowers of Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple) hadn’t even opened yet.  Which begs the question why in the world visit so early in the spring, early being on mountain time of course, if there’s more to see later?

Phlox stolonifera (creeping phlox) carpet the ground

Phlox stolonifera (creeping phlox) carpets the ground.

Iris cristata (dwarf crested iris) provides a nice footing for emerging Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern) fiddleheads.

Iris cristata (dwarf crested iris) provides a nice footing for emerging Osmunda cinnamomea (cinnamon fern) fiddleheads.

The wildflower labyrinth is easy to navigate now before it erupts into an herbaceous maze later this summer.

The wildflower labyrinth is easy to navigate now before it erupts into an herbaceous maze later in the summer.

The answer is Rhododendron vaseyi, the pinkshell rhododendron. The Southern Highlands Reserve holds the largest population currently known of the pinkshell azalea.  It’s a rare deciduous azalea, currently only known to occur in the North Carolina mountains.  And, we have hit it right at the beginning of their bloom. Specimens in the landscape and around the appropriately named Vaseyi Pond are in peak blossom, but under the deciduous forest canopy, buds have barely begun to pop open, a difference which illustrates something the gardeners monitor.  We learn from our tour guides Paul (Volunteer Coordinator) and Taylor (Director of Research & Education) that they compare phenology in wild and cultivated areas to see if any differences are observed, knowledge which is internal to The Biodiversity Project at SHR.

Rhododendron vaseyi on the edge of Vaseyi Pond.

Rhododendron vaseyi on the edge of Vaseyi Pond.

2013 0514 Southern Highlands-NC (51)

Closeup of the pinkshell rhododendron flowers. Note the id characteristics; most blooms have 5-(7) anthers and spots on the upper part of the throat.

Of course, studying the gardens is not the only way they conduct research about the Appalachians, but they put their words into action. We learned that the gardens are helping to propagate several hundred Picea rubens (red spruce).  These trees have suffered from air pollution, and since these trees serve as a valuable niche for Carolina northern flying squirrels, a relic of the last ice age, the garden is excited to help plant seedlings into damaged ecosystems.  Thus, preservation of the land at Southern Highlands Reserve has lead to efforts to preserve species throughout the Appalachians, and the garden’s mission becomes a holistic cycle of protecting things that are beautifully and uniquely southern.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Of course, one cannot make a trip to the mountains without a few hours on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Here’s a few of the highlights.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (26)

Spring creeping up the sides of the Blue Ridge mountains.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (36)

Trillium grandiflorum (white trillium)

In many of the coves white trillium abounded.  I found this young blossom nestled next to a tree stump.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (47)

Rhododendron vaseyi (pinkshell rhododendron)

When I saw pinkshell rhododendron flowering along the Blue Ridge, I knew we were in luck for our adventures at Southern Highlands Reserve.  You can see them alongside the road.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (46)

Trillium undulatum (painted trillium)

Thanks to Jim Fowler‘s advice I also found a nice population of painted trilliums just off the parkway.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (53)

What look like tufts of clouds in the forest are actually the blooms and emerging foliage of Amelanchier (serviceberry).

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (67)

Diphylleia cymosa (umbrella leaf)

Once off the Blue Ridge, interesting flora continued to abound like this fine flowering specimen of umbrella leaf.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (71)

Trillium catesbaei (Catesby’s trillium)

What a superb species of Catesby’s trillium!  A roadside spotting, it was enough to make me turn around and come back.

2013 0513 Blue Ridge Pkwy (79)

Cypripedium acaule (pink lady-slipper)

After my stop to photograph the Catesby’s trillium, I heard water near the road and decided to explore.  Reaching the river, I didn’t find much, but before I started my trek to my car, chartreuse foliage caught my eye.  Above that foliage sat pink lady-slipper flowers!  Oo-de-lolly!  I counted 36 plants in flower!  A great plant to end a great day.

* * *

If you enjoyed learning about the pinkshell azalea above, check out these other great native deciduous azaleas I featured in an article in Carolina Gardener earlier this spring.  Until next time, keep growing!