Thursday, December 18, 2008

Okay, So I'm a Bit Obsessed

But it isn't my fault really. Charleston is just such a great laboratory for observing microclimates. Like this tropical hibiscus blooming today in downtown Charleston long after the hibiscus in my yard just across the harbor were killed by the frost. This particular plant bloomed all last winter and never had any frost damage at all and is now reaching for the second floor of the building.
This plant, though, was born with a horticultural silver spoon in its, ah, mouth:
  • It is planted up against a heat-retaining brick wall.
  • It is located just a few hundred feet from the Charleston Harbor where the heat retained by the water warms the air a bit. The entire penninsula of Charleston is warmer than surrounding areas because the two rivers that flank it provide a slight warming to the air.
  • It is located in downtown Charleston which is warmer due to the effects of the urban heat island.
I'm very jealous. The hibiscus in my yard won't bloom until next fall because they will have to come back all the way from the root IF they come back at all. What a difference a few miles can make.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Broms of December

The surprise of tropical color on a gray winters day should be enough to convince anyone in the coastal South to grow bromeliads. I've watched many a woman stop in her tracks and ask me what that beautiful flower is and may she have a piece. Aechmea gamosepala has that effect on people. The blue flowers on a pinkish-purple spathe screams "hello" while the thornless leaves are gardener friendly.

The above picture shows the plant crawling up a live oak trunk providing both the shade and shelter from frost that this plant needs. White frost will damage this plant but I've seen it undamaged by 22f under an evergreen canopy. Just place it at the base of a tree and this plant will make itself at home with a minimum of care. As a small ground cover it is so dense few weeds can penetrate.

Another great one is Aechmea distichantha (above), with its bright pink spathes that remain brilliant for months after the flowers fade. The plant is wickedly thorny and depending on the variety can be huge, with leaves over two feet long tipped with a spine that can penetrate leather.

Easy to grow whether in a crotch of a tree or as a specimen on the ground all the plant requires is part shade and a well drained site as do all broms . Under the canopy of a tree the plant has taken temps down into the upper teens undamaged. There are three different forms on the market that vary in size from 1' tall to a variety that has curved leaves that are 3' long. The bloom season varies but it is always at the darkest time of year.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Tropics Are Just a Live Oak Away

The tropics are just a live oak away? Okay, maybe not. There are no coconut palm lined beaches magically appearing on the other side of my live oak tree. There is no secret door in the trunk that magically opens to a warmer, sunnier place. But.....there are tropical plants that thrive under the live oak.

Charleston straddles USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Ho-Hum (or 8b), with minimum temperatures of 15-20 degrees, and USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Ooh-La-La (or 9a), with minimum temperatures of 20-25 degrees. What grows in Zone Ooh-La-La? Think tropical hibiscus, some bromeliads, an expanded range of palms, tropical ferns. I want that! So I keep shoving more marginal plants under the protective canopy of my live oak.

The happy little collection of strobilanthes, aechmea, vriesea gigantea "Nova", and monstera in this November 30 photo was unscathed by the scattering of freezing temps that had knocked back other tender plants in exposed areas of my yard. Will they all make it through the winter? Who knows. I have serious doubt about the monstera and even the sturdier plants in that group may die if we have an exceptionally cold weather. In the meantime though, I love having that bit of color hanging on in my yard.

A live oak can help gain those few precious degrees that mean a tropical that would normally die is instead root-hardy (hopefully the case with the monstera) or that a tropical that normally would only be root-hardy is evergreen (for example, the Persian Shield). On a cold night, the closed canopy of the live oak acts like a cozy down blanket by trapping the warmer air radiated up from the ground. That same "blanket" also prevents plant cell damaging frost from settling on leaves and stems.

How much of a difference does it make? Seeing is believing. In a downtown Charleston park, this Persian Shield, lying just a few feet outside the dripline of a Live Oak, was top-killed by freezing temps a few days ago:
But just ten feet away, under the protective cover of the same Live Oak, this Persian Shield is untouched by the cold:

And because it hasn't been killed back in years, it has these great big leaves:

Same story with this groundcover which is also outside the dripline of the Live Oak:

And again just ten feet away, is the same plant, same day:

I have no idea what this little groundcover is. Any suggestions? I do know that under that tree it is perennial.
Of course, it isn't only live oaks that afford some freeze protection. This Blue Daze is sheltered by the lorapetalum in the background but just a few feet away ten more Blue Daze are all top-dead:

If these plants all thrive this winter, my azaleas and holly ferns had better watch out... Zone Ooh-La-La will be moving on in!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas Cheer Charleston Style

Poinsettia in Charleston

While we winter weather wimpy Charlestonians were turning our thermostats up and complaining about a few hours of freezing temperatures, this garden poinsettia maintained its focus and was thus able to pull off a few blooms just in time for the holiday season. Now as anyone knows who has ever mistreated their brand-new florist poinsettia, they don't like the cold, much less a freeze. But this poinsettia was protected from the freeze by the top-secret frost protection gizmo of....

Deep eaves

very, very deep eaves that kept white frost from settling on the leaves. Lots of tropical plants in Charleston that were unlucky enough to not have such protection were knocked back by freezing temps a couple of weeks before this picture was taken. The old Navy base where we found this plant has been closed for years so it is pretty safe to say this plant has been neglected.

We both remember when there were several poinsettias in the ground in downtown Charleston which for the most part, modern landscaping has eliminated (the plants, that is...not Charleston). And that is quite a shame as poinsettias are part of Charleston history. Their discover, Joel Poinsett, was born right here. He served in a number of political roles including being our first minister to Mexico (that was an early form of ambassador and yeah, I had to go googling for that detail) which is what he was doing when he found this member of euphorbia family growing in southern Mexico.

I think the moral of this story is to experiment with planting some marginally hardy plants under hard shade in the form of an overhang, an evergreen tree like a live oak, or even an evergreen shrub. I'm obsessed with the topic of frost protection right now so stay-tuned...more to follow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Camellia sinensis at CawCaw

It looks like a bit of spring but instead it was a crisp, fall day when this image of a tea plant (camellia sinensis) was taken at CawCaw Interpretive Center, a Charleston County park. Early in the twentieth century there were scattered attempts to grow tea commercially just south of Charleston. Today, at this former site the land has returned to forest but the tea has survived and naturalized.

The park is a beautiful slice of the Carolina low country with abandoned rice fields that are now fresh water marshes filled with alligators and birds or swamps now dark with trees and dwarf palmettos.

The tea grows on the higher, drier areas, sometimes just a single plant but other times as a hedge running through the woods. Flowering occurs in October and November on plants that are 4 to 5 feet tall. The forest above them is composed of oaks and spruce pines and allows a moderate amount of light to penetrate.

Caw Caw is a beautiful park developed as a nature reserve for walking among the diverse habitats that can occur in a small area. It is easily accessible and a true joy to walk.

Friday, November 7, 2008


The mums are covered with bees and cloudless sulphur butterflies. The abundance of insects still about this time of year always amazes me Living in the south has taught me you share your garden with many animals invited or not. In my yard nothing is rare! There is never just one, everyone brings friends.

My popcorn tree(tallow to you non-low country folks) attracts huge flocks of black birds this time of year and the yard is covered with its seedhulls. This is strictly a winter phenomenon as the neighborhood has always been a winter roost.

The lubber grasshoppers munch on my Cycas species, not just the soft new growth but also on the hard mature leaves. They however never seem interested in the coonties or Dioon from Mexico. Lady palms are candy as are windmill palms for these big grasshoppers and I spend my summers killing them to no avail.

When the broad-head skinks are courting they are the cutest things otherwise their sole purpose is to startle with their size and fast movements. For speed the glass lizards hold the record for reptiles in my yard. After years of gardening in the South I am still scared silly when one of them comes at me. They are completely benign creatures with only one fault: they lunge at you when they are disturbed and boy do you jump!

Yes, mammals do live in my garden. A gash from a lightening strike in my red oak houses a large bromeliad and a possum feels obligated to fill the cups of the brom with debris. The bromeliad has grown gigantic so it`s a relationship I do not disturb.

There is a mystery animal that empties my pond of half its water at least once a year and destroys the water lily growing there. It happens only on weekdays so I notice it after I get home from work. It could have happened at night or during the day, I`ll never know.

Garden Jewels

We always want what we cannot have and mine is a succulent garden. By my front door I have built a small raised bed out of gravel and rocks and planted it with assorted desert plants. The site is in full sun all day and open to the breeze, just the spot where you think every succulent would do well. Well, some of them do.

The first casualty was the much talked about Aloe polyphylla, it went into a slow decline its second year and was eventually moved. It was from this I learned that succulents can hang a long time but fungicides and a good environment can`t always save a plant.

From left to right; Graptopetalum paraguayense, Sedum palmeri and an unknown Sedaveria

There have been successes, a sedaveria of unknown name has grown so well it has wandered out of the raised bed and has become a ground cover for a native viburnum. It has stopped spreading(it drops leaves which then root) when it hit the point where a puddle forms from roof run off. Another is Aloe humilis, a little clustering plant that grows as well in the raisd bed as it does in the regular soil.

The background plant is the Othona, the foreground is Sedum bithyncum and a Manfreda sp.

Another happy plant is Othona cherifolia from north Africa. A winter bloommer with small yellow daisies flowering over a long period, the plant is so fast that after each bloom eriod I cut it back and throw the clippings around the yard and see what survives. About half the time the clippings rot and grow.

Monday, November 3, 2008


These two birds are a perfect match for my wildlife photography skill level- posing patiently in their bronze glory while I take thirty different images right up in their faces. I'm not sure who they are supposed to be, great blue herons, maybe? The pair, in their sweetgrass nest, mark the entrance way to a new development next to my neighborhood. The developers put in all the infrastructure, including retention ponds and landscaping, before being stalled by the housing slump. What can I say? There loss is our gain as we now have a combination stroll park and dog park and are all loving it.

Isn't the sweetgrass surrounding the birds almost unbelievably frothy? Sweetgrass (muhlenbergia capillaris or muhly grass) is a workhorse most of the year, surviving with little water, providing a bit of vertical accent but not much wow factor. In the fall, however, when the sun is lower in the sky and shines through its delicate blooms the workhorse becomes a showhorse.

Our town has mass planted sweetgrass in the median of the main drag, maybe in part a tribute to 'the basket ladies' who have for decades made sweetgrass baskets at roadside stands on the same road, practicing a craft handed down from enslaved ancestors who worked the rice plantations along the coast. There is a bit more history and some pictures of baskets here:

I found this little sweetgrass basket (hold on a minute while I get the glass cleaner for that mirror) in a neighbor's trash! Any locals, or tourists, who have ever priced the baskets know what a true find that was. A day in the trashpile left it a little lopsided but otherwise none the worse.

Just this fall I put 15 clumps of sweetgrass in a ridiculously sandy, dry, and sunny strip outside my fence where nothing else will grow. Hopefully in years to come it will thrive and put an end to my multi-year quest of what to do with that space. So far, so good.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Beautiful MIstake

I`ve always wanted a garden full of fruit trees, so when I bought this house I immediately started to collect all the fruits I could possibly grow in this inland suburban Charleston,SC garden. My first acquisitions were of as many kinds of citrus as I thought would survive here. I now have an orchard on the west side of yard that is threatening to push the house off its foundation.

Some of the plants were purchased from fruit nurseries while others are seed collected from local gardens. The grafted material from the nurseries such as my satsuma, kumquat or orangequat are now loaded with fruit while the seed grown plants have grown huge and beautiful but who knows when the plants will produce fruit. Now the USDA has put a ban on the movement of citrus along the South Carolina coast, so for a while I had better learn to love what I have because nothing new will be coming along.

This Honan Red persimmon grows near the street in my frontyard planted so its beauty can be seen by all. And eaten by every one! After seeing old persimmon trees decorated in the fall with fruit as bright as lanterns and leaves lacquered Chinese red I thought what a wonderful way to brighten my yard. What I did not know is that everyone's grandmother has a tree back in the country and that they are beloved by all. You would think the grocery stores would be over flowing with them but it was not till after I picked my first one did I learn what a gooey mess the fresh fruit is.

This will probably be my future mistake but I am going to plant an avocado next year. Her name is Joey and she resides in Texas at the moment. She is the product of an extensive on-line search by Anne and myself this past February. We could find all sorts of named varieties that should be hardy enough to grow here but we could not find an on-line source. All this was mentioned to a friend in Texas who immediately went on-line and found a source for Texas shipping only.

Finally this past August he located and purchased a 3- gallon plant that will be delivered next spring when he visits Charleston. Sounds great right? Well about the same time I read about Persea Wilt that is spreading up the coast and has killed 99% of Persea (red bays) trees. Avocado is also a Persea and appears to be susceptible to this Chinese introduction. I plan to plant it even if it becomes another beautiful mistake.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Swamped Swamp Sunflower

The yellow at the bottom of this pic is the native Swamp Sunflower, or helianthus angustifolius, relaxing at home in a swampy area at Caw Caw Interpretive Center which is a Charleston County Park occupying the site of several old rice plantations. Now for those of you who didn't grow up in Charleston where blue-haired schoolteachers have bored generations of children with the history of rice cultivation: rice growing was a soppy wet business. It involved all these levees and dikes and flooded fields and water flowing hither and yon. When local rice growers finally threw in the scythe in the early 1900's, the abandoned low-lying fields reverted to marshes and swamps. And with a rainfall last weekend of several inches, there was water everywhere.

This stand of Swamp Sunflower was probably on dry-ground ten days ago but being waterlogged seems to have kept it happy.

Sunshine on a Tree

They are orange and shining like Christmas ornaments: the satsumas are ripe! Satsuma mandarins are my favorite citrus to eat. The trees are scraggly and grow in unpredictable directions but they makeup for these landscaping deficiencies by bearing the tastiest fruit.

My 5 year-old grafted tree has hundreds of fruits hanging on it- the second year with an abundant harvest. The Kimbrough scion is grafted on a Poncirus trifoliata root stock which dwarfs and adds cold hardiness to an already cold-tolerant variety.

Two months after being planted the tree endured a 15 degree temperature in my zone 8 yard without damage, nor did a 103 temperature bother it. The tree took three years to produce its first fruits, a harvest of a mere two. But by year four the bounty was so generous that I had to support the branches to keep the fruit off the ground.

My mother in Ohio will be waiting for a box as will my carnivorous sister who was shocked by how good fresh fruit can taste.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Tall and Short of It

I'm crazy for cuphea. I mean really, I could be "the crazy cuphea lady". Why? Cause cuphea are committment-free plants. You just stick them in the ground and they go year in and year out. I have no idea what glories they would achieve with a little more water and some occassional food but these plants are the doormats of the plant world - they take abuse with a smile. If they were people instead of plants they would surely be in therapy learning to stand up for their needs. But alas, they are among the voiceless masses so they just do what is asked of them without a word of protest.

In my hot, sunny yard there are several cuphea that bloom heavily all summer and are also hummingbird and butterfly attractors. In the Charleston area they die to the ground every winter but are always in bloom again by the time the hot weather kicks in and continue blooming well into fall as you can tell by these pictures taking on October 23. These two cupheas are both commonly called Cigar Cuphea but are different varieties - one large and one small. The orange flowers of both are toned down by their maroon stems and dark green leaves which I think rescues them from the brink of gaudiness.

Cuphea ignea, one of several plants commonly called firecracker plant, is the shorty of the two. Mine has never gotten over about 18 inches tall but then again it has had to survive on rain water for survival and is planted in almost pure sand. I'm not always a good plant mom!

Cuphea micropetala, or giant cigar plant, is much bigger. Its other common name, candy corn cuphea, is more descriptive and alluringly alliterative too! This one gets to four to five feet tall.

All the cuphea I've grown do best in full sun and look great even in poor soil and low water.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

You Dirty Boy, You!

Who would have ever known that prissy angel trumpets could hide such a dirty secret? I guess dirt is what you get when you go peeping up a boy's skirt. (C'mon, surely you knew Angel's Trumpets were cross-dressers, didn't you? They are way too big to be real women.) Yes, the ballet dancers of the flower world have evidently been rolling around in the lowly muck.

In my zone 8ish/9ish yard, this brugmansia has flushed once, about a month ago, and has started a very lopsided (preference towards the sun) second flush. They die back completely to the ground every winter and take till fall to start blooming again. In downtown, penninsular Charleston (which is all of maybe 4 miles away as the crow flies) they can be evergreen thanks to the urban heat island and two rivers warming the land in between.

Oh the scent! In the heat of day, I can't smell it at all. But as I walk past my frontyard on my evening walks, the scent is undeniable- not overwhelming or cloying but defintely sweet and beautiful.

Brugs love lots of cow poop, lots of water, some afternoon shade, and the fawning attention of passersby.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tidy Torch Tithonia

Ah, relief at last from the towering tithonias! This tithonia rotundifolia "torch" has stayed under 4 feet which is midget by tithonia standards and is a much bushier and, well, basically just nicer looking plant all the way around. Tithonia (or Mexican Sunflower) is a self-seeding annual in the Charleston area. This one planted itself outside my fence and has never seen the first drop of supplemental water but that hasn't slowed it down one bit. In the softer sunlight of autumn, the orange is just gorgeous.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Okra's Kith and Kin

As any good gumbo eating southerner knows: okra loves the south! While sane humans are hiding in their air conditioned houses, okra is soaking up the sun. An early proponent of solar power, it uses it to propel itself to incredible heights and lengthen pods visibly overnight. So it makes perfect sense that okra's kith and kin are happy plants in the southern garden. The okra cousins featured below have been super easy plants in my garden, all thriving in full sun, heat, humidity, and drought. All are easy to grow from seed and in fact self-seed rather freely.

If okra (abelmoschus esculentus) has a fraternal twin, Abelmoschus manihot, or Sunset Hibiscus, may just be it. Their soft yellow flowers are virtually identical and they reach the same soaring heights but the leaves and seedpods vary a bit.

Every family has a runt and in the Okra family Abelmoschus moschatus may be it. Although I've read that they can reach a few feet tall, in my area they seem to top out at less than a foot. It turns out that the common name, musk mallow, applies because the oil from the seeds is commonly used in the perfume industry as a plant form of musk thereby sparing the endangered musk deer and is one of the key ingredients in one of Chanel's new fragrances. See if you feel compelled to make your own smelly stuff.

My neighbor and I discovered this beauty on a plant collection expedition on a southeast barrier island. The barrier island does happen to be heavily populated AND it is five miles from our front door AND we did find the plant in a heavily cultivated and probably commercially landscaped front yard BUT other than that Tony Avent has nothing on us- we are plant explorers.

Unable to collect seeds, we searched for the plant online, thought we id'ed it, and ordered seeds. Neighbor friend planted them at the base of her picket fence and waited for them to fill their allotted to 2'x3' space. At two feet, they were still growing. At five feet, they were still growing. Within a couple of months they could have been used as Christmas trees in someone's soaring entry hall as their hulking pyramid shapes topped out well over 8' tall with an equal spread at the base. Methinks our plant id'ing skills failed us!

We still don't know what we first saw but we do know that what she grew was hibiscus radiatus and when I inherit a 20-acre garden from some benevolent stranger I may plant it again. In the meantime, it is preserved in pictures and in memories of its beautifully colored flowers and viciously prickly seedpods.

Pentapedes Phoenicia or Scarlet Mallow is a ridiculously spindly, awkward fellow when planted alone but in groups makes quite a show. With minimal branching, the smallish red cup-shaped blooms open along the trunk. They reach about 4' tall and one inch wide. Okay, maybe a bit more than an inch wide but these guys are so skinny they do have to turn sideways in a rainshower to get wet. Give them about 12-16" to make the full turn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ferns on a Rock

The other day was too beautiful to stay inside so Anne and I went out a-walking. We headed toward Columbia, SC to Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve. Fellow coastal-plainers will understand the joy of hills and rocks to flatlanders like us as it is a sight not seen here by the ocean. It`s a great walk with ancient rolling sand hills, short rock ledges and a strange mixture of plants. There is even a waterfall-the only one on SC's coastal plain.

The vegetation is a mix of what is typical in coastal sand hills with a bit of mountain flora along the shaded creek. The ferns were sitting on the sandstone outcrops and were lush from the previous days rain. The surprise of the walk was the native Cheilanthes or lip ferns which were "hiding in plain sight" surrounded by resurrection ferns.

These xeric fern are gray-green and fuzzy and grow on bare rock. Some were next to the resurrection ferns while others sat alone on the bare surface. I don`t know which species they are but they do not look like any other fern in the area. In the top picture above, the unusual coloring and texture of the fern are visible.

In my garden I grow a couple of species (Cheilanthes tomentosa and C. eckloniana) with my succulents. The bed (seen in the second picture above) is in full sun all day, fast draining because it is raised yet the ferns look soft and fresh as any well cared for woodland species. That gray and fuzzy look has been admired by Anne since I planted them. It was a thrill for both of us to see a specimen in the wild.

If you have a fast draining spot in the garden give one of these a try. It`s like a vegetable teddy bear: fuzzy and appealing. Online vendors like Plant Delights now carry them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Chinese Fan Palms

Anne fell in love this year. She would call with comments and questions and I knew it was for real: she had discovered Livistona chinensis. It is a great palm Walmart always has cheaply in the house plant section. Bright shiny green leaves on a slow growing plant (in south Florida it grows like a weed) that will tolerate full sun or part shade.

Twenty-two degrees seems to be the temp where the leaves burn off but the plant quickly comes back from fifteen. An evergreen canopy can help keep the leaves a little longer in cold weather. In my 8b neighborhood it is damaged every other year, in Anne's zone 9 garden rear the water it may go for years without damage. So give it a try!

Little Palms

I`m a lover of palms and it is one of the reasons I live in Charleston,SC. In my mind, palms are tall trees bending in the wind not small shrubby plants acting as ground cover. I now know that one of the most beautiful cold tolerant palms is a little gem, Chamaedorea radicalis.

She is a beauty: small and dainty, dark green leaves and brilliant red fruits that is easy to grow. She can also be a he, since the sexes are on separate plants in this species. Normally just a clump of 6 or 8 feathery leaves rising from the ground, you`ll be surprised every once in a while by a plant that produces a trunk.

Shade is what they need and even watering sincetheir homeland is the cloud forest of north east Mexico. When they are happy and you have both sexes you`ll have their distinctive "v" seedlings come up all over the yard. Under a canopy Radicalis palms look best in mass, forming a mid-level just above the ground cover. Fifteen degrees has never bothered mine as long as they are under a canopy. They give your garden that tropical look but tolerate the vagaries of the southeast because they evolved in this climate in Mexico. Let`s start giving them a new home!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

This will berry-ly take a minute

I can't stop myself. I've gone blogging crazy. As soon as I think I'm done I find another picture that I would be truly selfish to withhold from the world for another day or week or month. And that is the case with these two. Other than somewhat identifying these little beauties, I have nothing. Top pic is of yew (or podocarpus) berries, bottom picture is some kind of myrtle (or myrtus, maybe communis.)

There now, I've posted the pics, the world is a better place for it, and I can go on with my life.

Lowcountry Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkins? Okay, maybe not. But around here this a much more familiar fall scene than a pumpkin patch. This is the fallen fruit of the pindo palm or jelly palm (or Butia capitata if you aren't on a more friendly basis) interspersed with the green sprouts of past years' seeds.

The fruit is pretty tasty if you nab it before it has fallen to the ground and turned into a pile of stinky rotten gunk. Some folk make jelly out of the fruit and our local paper ran a recipe for the jelly a couple of weeks ago (see I'm kind of tempted to try making it.

Whoa, who am I kidding? That whole hoodoo-voodoo thing with boiling and jars and lids and seals scares the bejeebers out of me. My finished product would probably be so full of whatever it is that is supposed to be sealed out (bacteria?) that whole neighborhoods would have to be evacuated everytime a jar was opened. Anyway, I'm pretty certain that you can only make jelly if you learned at your grandma's side. If you missed out on that window of opportunity with grandma you don't get a do-over: your jelly-making fate, if not your jelly, is sealed.

Until recently I'd lumped almost all palms around here in as Sabal Palmetto (the SC state tree). I'm still not good at id'ing palms but have finally figured out that Sabals have fan-shaped leaves while pindo palms have feather-shaped leaves. Gee, that sure is easy!

Hallelujah, Let Me Hear You Say Hallelujah!

Yes, a resurrection has occurred. A recent run of rainy days has caused tiny ferns to unfurl their green fronds on live oaks and brick walls all over Charleston. The resurrection fern (polypodium polipodioides) has done its thing. It is amazing that all that lush greenness was a tiny wad of crispy brown just before the rain began. How does that happen? I mean really, I'd like to see the resurrecting part in time-lapse photography: do the fronds slowly plump back up or is it instantaneous? Either way, it is awe-inspiring. I want to try to get it going on my cluster of live oaks as soon as I can find a fallen piece to start with.

This particular colony inhabits the top of a brick wall on a downtown Charleston street. Charming.

Are They Singing or Screaming?

These flowers crack me up. Okay, the middle picture I threw in because it is pretty (and my very first ever macro shot which I wanted to show off) but the other two are there so you can see the flowers singing. Like in the top picture, the three blooms over towards the left that are all 'facing' you...don't they look like a little choir? Then again the single flower in the last picture looks more like it is chewing someone out.

I think this particular torenia fournieri (or wishbone flower) is probably Summer Wave Blue. Another big box store clearance rack purchase, this started out as 6 or 8 plants a couple of months ago and now covers an area of 21 square feet. I'm much happier with it than with another torenia that is planted right next to it as it has much bigger flowers, has spread more rapidly, and is still blooming while the other variety has mostly gone to seed. These really get a lot of sun and are definitely thirsty little buggers. Next year I'll plant them in a bit more shade and see if they stop whining for water all the time. That is it! Those blooms aren't singing or screaming....they're whining! Bunch of candyasses.

Friday, October 10, 2008

First Prize for Best Use of Marigolds Goes To......

First prize for best use of marigolds goes to! See, I'm just that way sometimes...when no one else will give me the kudos I think I deserve I just give them to myself. And since I've seen very few uses of marigolds that I could bare, I think I'm fairly safe in giving myself this award (at least for the day).

The whole marigold thing started when I was on the countdown to having house guests. As everyone knows, before guests arrive you have to do all kinds of special-getting-ready-things to make your world look like you always live the way you only live for the few days they are there. For me, that included filling a big gaping hole in my garden with SOMETHING. The marigolds were a panic-purchase from the clearance rack (my fav source for bedding plants) at the bigbox store near me.

Trust me, had there been any other cheap options I wouldn't have bought marigolds. I'm fairly certain I suffered a childhood trauma involving marigolds because I hate them that much. But when life gives you know how to finish that sentence or at least I hope you do because I really don't. I mixed them with some Magilla Perilla (behind the marigolds) and white profusion zinnias (front) and ended up, who woulda' thunk it, enjoying the whole little scene, especially when the butterflies are flitting around. Long live the lowly marigold!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

SunTolerant Caladiums

Sometimes things that seem too good to be true are, well, true! Thanks to a nudge and a shove from brilliant hybridizers, caladiums have finally come out from their shady hiding places and are happily flashing their colorful selves in sunny settings all over the South. The caladium in the picture above, Red Flash, sits in a corner of my yard that gets over 10 hours of sun a day in mid-summer and it still thrived without requiring any more irrigation than the surrounding plants. Some of the cultivars that experts claim do well in full sun are:
  • Aaron
  • Carolyn Whorton
  • Festiva
  • Florida Cardinal
  • Florida Elise
  • Florida Sweetheart
  • Galaxy
  • Gingerland
  • Grey Ghost
  • Pink Beauty
  • Postman Joyner
  • Red Ruffle
  • Red Flash
  • Rosalie
  • Rosebud
  • White Queen
  • White Wing
Texas A&M has an extensive list on their website which lists even more varieties as well as identifying which ones are the most sun-tolerant and which ones are the least. Several online vendors carry sun tolerant caladium but Caladium Bulbs 4 Less
makes it easy by listing sun-tolerant varieties as a category.

With cooler fall temperatures, my Red Flash isn't quite as stellar as it was even a month ago and in my zone 8B/9A garden its winter hardiness is marginal but I'll definitely order more next year for their easy care and super showy colors.

Hibiscus Panama Red

"Is that a Japanese Maple?" is the question I hear regularly when people first spy the Hibiscus Panama Red, the gorgeous painted monster that squats in the front corner of my yard. And with its deeply cut and deeply red foliage it is easy to see the resemblance. This was a "give it a try buy" from a big-box store in early summer that has more than earned its keep. Like a lot of the other plants I rave about, it fits my criteria of heat, humidity, and drought tolerant. Evidently, Allan Armitage at the University of Georgia agrees as it has been selected as one of their favs in the Athens Select program (see

Hibiscus acetosella (Panama Red or False Roselle) is not winter-hardy in my area although I've read that it might overwinter if it had some overhead protection from settling frost. Next year I'll give that a try by planting it under the perimeter of my cluster of Live Oaks. Panama Red has not flowered for me but who needs flowers with foliage this spectacular? In early October, my plant is nearly 5 feet tall and more than 6 feet at the widest. Imagine the size if I hadn't had to cut it back severely after it was wind damaged by a tropical storm six weeks ago! With lower branches touching the ground, there is absolutely nothing leggy or gangly about this plant

Monday, October 6, 2008

Southern signs of fall

While walking out my backdoor today I noticed the first sasanqua blossom, a sure sign that the cool weather is coming. It`s a single white with a pink edge that has a gentle sweet fragrance. Farther back in the yard the red tea is also blooming. Usually the tea blooms first, this year they started together for the first time.

I started looking around the yard at what else is in bloom and was surprised at the variety. My Rhododendron minus from south Georgia is opening its lavender flower. It is not unusual for some plants from this population to start in the fall. Right on schedule is Viburnum obovatum 'Mrs. Shillers Delight', she will start in October and bloom all winter till peak season in March.

The garden is hummingbird heaven do to the vibrant red blooms of the firespikes (Odontonema strictum). This is the defining plant of fall for me, they will continue until frost supplying the birds nourishment till the cold drives them south.

The final group of plants that start to bloom now are the bromeliads. My Aechmea kertesziae is showing its yellow drumstick among the ferns under the sasanqua, as the weather cools it will be joined around the yard by many other species. This truly is my favorite time of year, it is a beginning not a finish.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Lawn

That patch of green that covered my front yard until this spring really couldn't even claim to be a lawn. It was more a display garden of the common weeds of the southeast coastal region. Crabgrass and nut sedge and sand spurs, ohmy! It was time to either drag out the herbicides, the pesticides, and the garden hose or get rid of it. It is gone. Not quite 100 per cent gone but there is only a 28' circle of lawn surrounded by colorful annuals, perennials, and a healthy dose of fast-growing tropicals to fill in the blanks until the trees and shrubs start growing.

The thing I needed the most each time I expanded the beds wasn't compost or muscle power but courage. My neighborhood is full of lawns that march straight from the front door to the curb. How would the neighbors react to my nonstop beds? Okay the truth is, I wasn't even sure how I would react. Would my yard look eccentric and silly when it was all done? In the end, my disdain for mowing the weeds outweighed any doubts I had and the beds kept getting bigger and bigger.

Five months later it isn't quite finished. There are a couple of spots where I'm creatively stymied but 85 per cent of it is in place and flourishing. I'm thrilled. It takes about five minutes to mow the circle of lawn, the yard is more private than before, and it just looks so stinking pretty! How could little green blades of grass possibly compete with plumbago and roses and porterweed for beauty? And the neighbors I worried about? They love it!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A "Shoutout" for White Profusion Zinnias

These plants amaze me! They are huge (2-3 feet across, albeit a bit splayed in the middle), constantly covered in the promised profusion of blooms, and the blooms themselves are always covered in an unpromised profusion of butterflies of a half dozen varieties. The white profusion zinnias not only tolerate heat, humidity, and drought but seem to take suffocating, stifling temps as a personal challenge and reach their most glorious dimensions after several weeks of roasting in the sun. AND they are self-deadheading. The bleach-stained coloring of the orange and pink versions annoy me but the white - wow!

Just the facts: they will take all the sun you can give them, don't need a lot of water, and reach 15-24 inches tall and 2-3 feet wide. Plant early for biggest results. Gulf fritillary butterflies love them.