First bloom

It is always exciting when a plant in my collection blooms for the first time, especially so when the plant is an orchid.  I find that I am often surprised by the size of a new flower.  Orchid books and websites usually include closeup photos with very few indicators of scale, so I often imagine the plant much larger or smaller than it actually is.  This week, a hardy  terrestrial orchid is blooming for the fist time in the garden, and I find that once again, I had somehow developed a mental image at odds with its real size.

Calanthe sieboldii

Calanthe sieboldii (syn. Calanthe striata)

The Kew checklist gives Calanthe striata as the accepted name for this species, but for now, I’ll stick with the name that is more commonly used in horticulture.

Like many plants from Japan and adjacent regions of China and Korea, C. sieboldii does very well in our climate.  I planted it under a dogwood tree last summer, so it gets full sun now but will be shaded when the canopy fills in over the next few weeks . Before planting, I amended the native clay with permatill, a little peat, and rotted wood chips left over from the last time we had some trees cut down.

None of the calamities that I feared came to pass, and the buds on my plant opened this week.  The flowers, yellow with a hint of green, aren’t as intensely colored as the yellow daffodils, but they are nevertheless very pretty.  They’re significantly larger than I expected for a hardy Calanthe.  I had only seen the diminutive Calanthe discolor in bloom previously, and this plant is larger in all aspects.  Incidentally, the hybrid of C. sieboldii and C. discolor, Calanthe Takane, is in bud a few feet away and may be the subject of a blog post next week.

You might be able to get a better idea of the flowers’ size with the gardener’s fingers in the frame to give a sense of scale.  It will also give you a better look at the interior of the nodding flower.  The column looks something like a bird’s head with two beady brown eyes.

Calanthe sieboldii, flower closeup
Calanthe sieboldii, flower closeup

Flowers that fly

A tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) visits wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). It’s too early for mantises, so I suspect a bird or lizard took the chunk out of its wing.

It has been chilly for the last couple of nights, but I think we have dodged the possibility of a late frost.  There should be lots of flowers for the nectar sippers this year.  The first ruby throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) have arrived in the garden, just in time for the peak of wild columbine blooming, and tiger swallowtail butterflies are chasing each other through the trees.  Pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) have been checking out the newly emerging leaves of the white-veined pipevines (Aristolochia fimbriata), but if they are wise they’ll wait a few weeks before laying eggs.  Being patient will guarantee that there’s plenty of delicious, poisonous foliage for their caterpillars.

It feels as though we have passed a dividing line in the last few days, transitioning from tentative early spring to SPRING!  In the woods and along the roads, the native dogwoods are wrapping up their annual show.

A dogwood tree (Cornus florida) in our woods earlier this week. Trees that grow naturally in the forest have a much more open appearance than those cultivated in full sun.

The predominant colors of spring are becoming much more saturated and vibrant as the azaleas take over.  For a couple of weeks, piedmont gardens will be almost garish, and then we’ll have a green interlude until the summer perennials begin their show.

Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum) is native to the Florida panhandle and southern Alabama and Georgia, but it is perfectly hardy in the North Carolina piedmont.


Snakes in the garden, part 4: copperheads

Other posts in this series:

Snakes in the garden, part 1: flower bed snakelings

Snakes in the garden, part 2: the black snakes

Snakes in the garden, part 3: garter and green snakes

Snakes in the garden, part 5: an exciting morning

I think this picture makes it clear how the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) got its name. This snake had climbed up onto our raised deck and coiled against the side of the house. I found it when I stepped outside, barefoot, early one spring morning.

I have good news, bad news, and good news.  The good news is that there is only one species of venomous snake in most of the North Carolina piedmont. The mountains have rattlesnakes and copperheads.  The coastal plain has rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, coral snakes, and copperheads.  Apart from a small population of timber rattlesnakes that may  be hanging on in northern Durham and Granville Counties [1] most of the piedmont has only copperheads.

The bad news is that copperheads are very common, and you will almost certainly run across more than one if you live in the piedmont and like to garden.

But, the good news is that copperheads are really very mellow snakes.  They just want to sit quietly in ambush, waiting for a mouse to walk past, and they really don’t want to waste venom on a giant primate who’s far too large to eat.

That’s not to say a copperhead won’t bite, but you’ll probably need to actually grab it or step on it first.  I’ve had several close encounters, but I have never been bitten–the copperheads have never even struck at me, except in one case where I was clearly being very annoying  and probably deserved to be bitten (more on that below).  Once, I yanked up a clump of crab grass and a baby copperhead fell out.  Another time, I was kneeling to weed a dense patch of stiltgrass (Microstegium) and felt something brush against the inside of my knee.  I looked down just in time to see the tail of a large copperhead disappear between my legs. After my heart rate and adrenaline levels returned to something approaching normal, I looked around and found the snake coiled placidly a few feet away.

Last summer, a copperhead discovered a small hole where the foundation of our house meets the driveway slab:


We walked within a couple of feet of it every time we left the house, but it never bothered us.  After a few days, it moved on, presumably to find a den with less traffic.

So there’s no need to panic when you see a copperhead.  If you can see it, you’re probably in no danger of being bitten and in any case, copperhead bites are almost never life threatening.  According to Palmer and Braswell [1] there has been only one well-documented case of a lethal copperhead bite in North Carolina–an unfortunate one-year old child who was bitten more than fifty years ago.

When I find a copperhead close to the house, I usually relocate it to the woods so that we’re less likely to step on it.  The most effective tools for the job are an old fish tank and a broom. I lay the tank on its side in front of the snake and then use the broom to gently encourage it to climb inside.  The clear, flat sided aquarium seems to make a better trap than a bucket with curved sides which the snake can see and avoid more easily.

A trapped adult copperhead ready to head back to the woods after nearly giving me a heart attack while I was weeding.

If you can get past the Venomous Snake! Aaaagh! reaction, I think you’ll have to admit that copperheads are really quite handsome.  They’re beautifully camouflaged for life among the leaf litter, with coppery yellow/brown head and bands of chocolate brown and tan.  Baby copperheads have bright yellow tails that they use to lure prey, mostly small frogs or lizards:

IMG_3268 crop
A young copperhead showing its yellow tail tip (far left).

A number of non-venomous snakes are frequently mistaken for copperheads, but identification isn’t difficult if you look for a couple of key features.  Non-venomous colubrids in North Carolina have eyes with round pupils, but copperheads, like all pit vipers, have vertical pupils like a cat:

Notice the vertical pupil in the eye of this copperhead.

If you don’t want to get close enough to examine a snake’s eyes, look at the bands.  Copperheads have dark bands that are widest near the belly and narrow along the back.  Conversely, the light bands are widest along the back and narrower near the belly.  Non-venomous snakes like corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) have saddle-shaped blotches along the back.  If looked at from above, the dark markings are wider than the light–the opposite of a copperhead seen from above.

Not a copperhead. This is Galadriel, my daughter’s pet corn snake.

Water snakes are also sometimes mistaken for copperheads, or the copperhead’s relative the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) which lives on the coastal plain.  Similar to the corn snake, the banding of a northern watersnake is the opposite of the copperhead’s pattern.  In the northern watersnake, the dark bands are widest along the back and narrow towards the belly.

Also not a copperhead.  This northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) is attempting to swallow a bullhead catfish in the Eno River near Durham, NC. Compare its banding pattern to that of the copperheads above.

And of course, if a snake dives into the water to escape, that’s a pretty big hint that it’s a water snake, not a copperhead.

So this concludes my series on the snakes of my piedmont garden, but I live in hope of finding even more species among the perennials.  Perhaps this will be the year that we catch a mole kingsnake or an eastern hognose.  If so, I’ll post pictures here.

Oh, in case you were wondering what I did that actually made a copperhead angry enough to strike at me:  I can confirm that it is not a good idea to put a copperhead in the refrigerator, even if you plan to take it out before your spouse gets home from shopping.  You might think that it will cool the snake down and make it easier to pose for photographs, but by the time you get it back outside to a patch of picturesque moss it will have warmed up again and will be very annoyed.


  1.  Palmer, W.M., and Braswell, A.L., 1995, Reptiles of North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press.

A Sunny Saturday

It was a beautiful spring day.  Both Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham and the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh had their spring plant sales, and I picked up a few interesting bits and pieces, some native and some exotic:  Polygonatum humile (dwarf solomon’s seal), Trillium vaseyi (sweet wakerobin), Trillium recurvatum (bloody butcher), and Osmanthus ‘Jim Porter’ (holly-leaf tea olive).  At Raulston’s used book sale, I also snagged a nice clean copy of The Vascular Flora of the Carolinas for just $5.00 to replace my old copy that is falling apart.  This is an invaluable resource, but it isn’t really a field guide; it would probably break your toes if you drop it.

Here are a few iPhone snapshots from the garden today:

A small native Vaccinium, perhaps narrowleaf blueberry (Vaccinium tenellum), that is common in the surrounding woodland.  Here, it is growing under hickory trees on the dry slope beside the greenhouse.
At night, the flowers of Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’ smell exactly like Nyquil cold medicine. This witch alder is sometimes sold as the dwarf Fothergilla gardenii, but its size suggests a hybrid between F. gardenii and the larger F. major.
Leucojum aestivum, the summer snowflake, starts blooming in late March in North Carolina.
It’s hard to capture the airy, delicate beauty of wild columbine flowers. Although Aquilegia canadensis is native to the piedmont, these grew from seed that I brought from our old house when we moved. Every year, I scatter seed in a new part of the garden, and there are now hundreds of plants.
Tiny bluets, Houstonia caerulea, have self-seeded all over the lawn and the mossy woodland path. None of my snapshots today look any good, so I’ll cheat and post a picture from this time last year.