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.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Acalypha (copperleaf)

What is huge and sassy and multicolored all over? In my early-fall garden, it is acalypha (wilkesiana, maybe). Planted as tiny little 4-inch potted plants this June, my two acalyphas are now great big showy burst of color that just sit there and do their thing without any intervention on my part. God bless their colorful little souls. My good friend Mike, who knows all things botanical, declared in mid-summer when I was lamenting their still diminutive size, that acalyphas seem to take a few weeks to settle in but then just take off and he was (as always) right. After about 4 weeks of sitting there doing nothing, they suddenly doubled and then redoubled in size and then just kept growing. Yeah, the frost will kill them and I will have to start over with fresh plants next spring (a fact that my south Florida brother has a hard time with) but I'll be more than willing to shell out a few dollars for this tropical and just pretend it is an annual.

Bonus points for being heat, humidity, and drought-tolerant!