Summer vacation 2: downeast Maine and Kingsbrae Garden


(I meant to write this shortly after the post about our trip to the Pacific northwest, because I thought it would be interesting to compare the flora, both wild and cultivated, of the two northern locales.  But something else always seemed to require my attention, and now two months have gone by.  Luckily, photos of flowers never wilt.)

Part the First: Introduction

near Cutler

Towards the end of summer it is our habit to rent a little cottage on the coast of Maine and spend a quiet week hiking, fishing, and sampling the lobster rolls from as many different seafood takeouts as possible (the best this year:  Bayview Takeout on Beals Island).  The primary appeal of the area (apart from summer temperatures a good twenty degrees F cooler than North Carolina) is the coastline.  As a youngster, I imprinted on rocky shores in Cornwall and Norway, so the sand beaches and dunes of North Carolina, pretty as they are, can’t compete.  The granite slopes tumbling down to cold, deep water are evocative of happy childhood memories, and there can hardly be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than exploring a rocky tide pool.

Great Wass Island Preserve

We go far enough “down east” to leave the heaving mass of vacationers behind, and it’s not unusual to have a couple of miles of shoreline or a mountain trail all to ourselves.  Just an hour’s drive to the west, there are traffic jams in Acadia National Park, but we often see more wildlife than people.

I’m not very good at distinguishing grey seals from harbor seals.  I think this is a grey.

Afternoon visitor to the cottage garden
eagle 2
Not sure if the Noble Symbol of our Nation is reacting to current politics or has a fish bone stuck in his throat
Low tide

I just can’t get enough of this scenery.

Tunk mountain
The view from the top of Tunk Mountain is worth the climb.
water striders
Water striders on Jones Pond, Gouldsboro


Part the Second:  Wildflowers

Of course, whenever we go for a drive or a hike, I keep my eyes open for interesting plants.  This year, I noticed some similarities between the coast of Washington and that of Maine, despite more than 3000 miles,several mountain ranges, and four degrees of latitude separating the two locations.

In both places, one of the most common wildflowers is Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed):

Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed)

Spiraea species are also common along the roadside.  In Washington we saw pink flowered Spiraea douglasii and S. densiflora, while in Maine we see the white S. alba. Both fireweed and white meadowsweet are native to the mountains of North Carolina, but I have never seen them growing in the piedmont.  Too hot in summer, I would imagine.

Spiraea alba (white meadowsweet)

I saw some very interesting plants during a hike in Great Wass Island Preserve, where part of the loop trail runs just above the high tide line.  There’s really no trail at all for several miles, just occasional blazes painted on the rocks.  The cracks in the rock accumulate enough soil for plants to survive in what must be one of the harshest environments imaginable: baking in summer, frigid in winter, and dry when it isn’t being lashed by salt spray.

Great Wass Island
Great Wass Island Preserve

This is the home of a very pretty Campanula species that almost seems too delicate to grow in such a tough habitat.

campanula 2
Campanula sp. (bellflower)


Nearby, I also found and odd little plant with a cloud of tiny purple flowers above prostrate leaves:

sea lavendar
Limonium carolinianum (sea lavender)

I also found a succulent that I tentatively identified as a sedum.  When I looked it up later, I discovered that I wasn’t far off.

Rhodiola rosea, formerly Sedum rosea (roseroot)
roseroot 2
Beside this R rosea are the sword-like leaves of immature Iris setosa (beachhead iris).

The interior of the island is a shield of bare granite that the trail crosses to return to the parking lot.  Where a thin layer of acidic soil has accumulated on the rock, lichens and moss form a carpet among various ericaceous shrublets and stunted Pinus banksiana (jack pines).  In early August, the soil and moss was bone dry, and the leaves of wild blueberries and other ericaceae were already taking on their autumn colors.


Where the topography of the rock results in poorly drained pockets of peat, sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants grow.  I saw numerous Drosera rotundifolia (roundleaf sundew) and a few Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea (northern purple pitcher plant)


This plant was growing in shade, so it has much less red pigmentation than plants growing in a more sunny location.  The presence of red veins in the pitchers shows that it is not the all-green Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea forma heterophylla

For comparison, here is a red plant that I found a couple of years ago in Quoddy Head State Park, a little further northeast towards the Canadian border:

Sarracenia 2

And here are the shorter, wider pitchers of the southern subspecies, Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa, growing in North Carolina :

Sarracenia 3


Part the Third:  Kingsbrae Garden

No matter where we travel, we like to visit local botanical gardens, so one morning we drove about a hundred miles and crossed into Canada to visit Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.  On the drive up Route 9 to the border crossing at Calais, we stopped at what may be the most beautiful highway rest area I have ever seen.

rest area with lobelia

It also had the smelliest outhouse, but I didn’t take a photograph of that.

Along the stream, bright red Lobelia cardinalis were in full bloom.

rest area with lobelia 2

Interestingly, the same species was blooming at the same time in my garden 600 miles to the south.

Kingsbrae Garden was well worth the trip.  It isn’t all that large, but it is beautifully landscaped and contains a wide variety of native and exotic plants.

The first area a visitor encounters is a formal knot garden.


Kingsbrae succulent
Sempervivum in bloom

Below that is an informal perennial garden:


There’s a pond:


And interesting shrubs:

Kingsbrae hydrangea
Hydrangea paniculata
Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush), native to New Brunswick and North Carolina
Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac), also native to New Brunswick and the mountains of NC

The sculpture garden incorporates works by Canadian artists:

Something Stirs by Joel Palmer
Salmon Vortex by Alanna Baird
Cascade by Donna Mayne

And there are Alpacas.  At lunch time, they come out to the main lawn to mingle with the visitors.


If you find yourself in New Brunswick (or in Maine and have your passport), Kingsbrae is well worth a visit.


Eyes in the night

A few minutes ago, I went outside to take some trash to the garbage bin.  I was wearing a headlamp, so the leaf litter under the trees appeared to be liberally sprinkled with tiny jewels.  I often notice these beautiful little sparkles of light when I am out after dark.  They are the eyes of insects and spiders reflecting the light of my headlamp, and they’re not visible if I use a handheld flashlight.  I suppose that the light from the flashlight isn’t reflected back at the correct angle.

A few of the sparkles are moths, but the vast majority are wolf spiders, with an occasional fishing spider in the mix.  During the day, they hide away in the leaf litter or down in burrows, but at night they sit motionless on the surface, waiting for prey to wander past.

There are many of them. Very many.  Some of them are big.  And hairy.

Dolomedes tenebrosus (dark fishing spider), a fairly common species in the garden.


Six on Saturday #14

We haven’t had any cold weather yet, so the plants currently flowering are a mix of autumn stalwarts (Conoclinium, Symphiotrichum, Solidago), tropicals that will continue blooming until frost (Canna, Musa velutina, Abutilon), and a few confused spring bloomers or reblooming plants (Aquilegia, Rhododendron, Hydrangea).  For this Six on Saturday, I have selected things that I haven’t shown you before.

1. Phallus ravenelii (Ravenel’s stinkhorn)


The past week has been dampish and warm.  We didn’t get enough rain to really soak the soil, but it was sufficient to wake up a stinkhorn.  These rude fellows appear in spring and autumn, and they smell as bad as their common name suggests.  This one seems to have been munched by a slug or snail during the night, so you can see the honeycomb structure of the stalk.

And yes, the genus name means exactly what you think it does.

2. Symphiotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’ (Fanny’s aster)


Not much to say about Fanny’s aster.  It’s a very common autumn flower around here, because it is disease free, drought tolerant, and reliably floriferous.  The species is only just native to North Carolina, with records from one western county according to USDA.  Nancy Goodwin at Montrose Garden has mastered the art of pruning them at just the right time, so she gets perfect mounds of flowers.  My plants tend towards more of a sprawling mess.

3. Rosa ‘Nastarana’ (Persian musk rose)


This climbing rose supposedly came from a garden in Iran, sometime during the late 1800s.  I bought it because I am attracted to any plant that reminds me of places where I lived as a child–though I seem to recall that most of the roses we saw in Iranian gardens, like those at the Tomb of Hafez, were red.

I keep it, because it has wonderful fragrance, blooms much of the year, and is resistant to the blackspot fungus that bedevils roses in this climate.

4. Aquilegia canadensis (wild columbine)


Well, this is odd.  Of the many hundreds of wild columbines that I have grown in the past fifteen years, I have never before had one bloom in the autumn.

5. Rhododendron stenopetalum ‘Linearifolium’ (spider azalea)


This selected form of a Japanese species is not the most spectacular of azaleas, but its long thin leaves and matching flowers are certainly interesting.  It’s the sort of thing you walk past without really noticing, but then a few moments later, you think “what was that?” and turn around to have another look.

My plant blooms in spring and fairly often reblooms in autumn.

6. Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bailmer’ (Endless Summer Hydrangea)

Endless summer

I much prefer lacecap hydrangeas, but this mophead stays in the garden because of its ability to bloom on new wood.  Even if a late freeze kills all the old wood, the new growths bloom in early summer and sometimes rebloom in autumn.

That’s it for this Saturday.  This afternoon’s project will be to haul all of my pachypodiums back into the greenhouse for the winter.  While I’m doing that you can head over to The Propagator’s blog for more Six on Saturday.  If you are interested in participating, see his guide.

Self-peeling bananas

Ripe bananas of Musa velutina

At the end of July, I featured the inflorescence of Musa velutina as a “Six on Saturday” photo.  Two and a half months later, the fuzzy little pink bananas are fully ripe, and as is their wont, they have started to spontaneously peel.  I suppose that in their natural habitat, this peeling must attract animals that eat the bananas and distribute the large black seeds, but here in North Carolina the local wildlife doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.  At some point, I’ll pull them off and compost them before they get too mushy and start attracting fruit flies.  They’re supposedly delicious when fully ripe, but I haven’t bothered–too much effort to work around the very hard seeds.  If I want exotic little bananas, the local Asian supermarket has miniature “Thai bananas” which can be eaten without risking a cracked tooth.

Musa velutina, the pink banana, is apparently native to northeastern India.  Given its cold tolerance, I would guess that it comes from relatively high altitude in the Himalayan foothills, but I haven’t been able to confirm that supposition. It is fully hardy in North Carolina and doesn’t require the burlap wrapping or wire-mesh cages stuffed with dry leaves that some people use to protect the pseudostems of their “hardy” bananas during the winter.  That sounds too much like hard work to me.  All M. velutina requires is a fresh layer of mulch every couple of years.  The pseudostems freeze, but new ones sprout from the underground rhizome in spring and will flower in a single growing season in this climate.  My plants have survived a minimum temperature of 5.5 F (-14.7 C), but the cold weather never lasts long enough to freeze the soil to the depth of the rhizomes.

M. velutina is a relatively small banana species with a pseudostem up to about 5′ (1.5 m) tall and the leaves adding perhaps another 3′ (~1 m) to its maximum height.  Each stem only blooms once before dying, but they are replaced by new stems that sprout as the old ones mature.  My plants started growing early this spring, so the second generation of stems appeared at midsummer and are now starting to flower:


These bananas won’t have time to ripen before they are killed by frost, but when freezing temperatures threaten, I sometimes cut the unripe stalks for an interesting arrangement in a heavy vase.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, M. velutina grows to a maximum spread of 1.5 m wide. Ha, I say.  Ha ha!  Perhaps if you are growing it in a concrete pot exactly 1.5 m wide that will be its ultimate spread.  In a garden bed, it will spread quite a bit more than that.  Here’s my little patch of M. velutina grown from a single stem:


Although the fruit doesn’t have much culinary value, those big leaves are excellent for making Thai-style banana leaf-wrapped grilled fish.  I’m also planning to cut some for a friend to use in his family’s recipe for banana leaf tamales.

About a month from now, after the first frost, any leftover leaves and the dead stems will go in the compost bin.  The stems and leaves have long fibers that resist decay, so they need to be chopped up fairly small before composting, or they make a slimy, ropy mess.  Once, I tried to simultaneously chop frost-killed stems and dig them into a vegetable garden with a rototiller.  I won’t make that mistake again.  It was a nasty, smelly job trying to unwind the fibers tangled round the axle and clogging the tiller blades.