Family heirloom

My wife’s maternal grandparents were florists, and they planted a variety of interesting flowering plants in the garden of the house that they built in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania about eighty years ago.  My mother-in-law and father-in-law still live in that house, so I have been able to dig up bulbs and take cuttings of the old plants for my own garden.  Among them is a prickly pear cactus that blooms every May:

Opuntia humifusa
Spineless prickly pear cactus

My best guess is that the plant is Opuntia humifusa, eastern prickly pear.  It is completely spineless, with smooth, soft-looking pads and buds that invite one to touch it, but it has a secret weapon.  Instead of spines, each areole has a cluster of glochids, little barbed hairs that detach at the slightest touch.  They’re maddening and virtually invisible.  Removing them from skin requires a good pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass.

Despite the glochids, I think this plant is worth growing for its family history, its beautiful yellow flowers, and its red fruit that remain colorful through the autumn and most of the winter, even after the pads have shriveled in the cold.  Our local chipmunks seem to enjoy eating the fruit.  Then they leave cactus seed poop on the railing of the deck.

Eastern chipmunk
Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) eating an Opuntia fruit in late winter.

In addition to the heirloom Opuntia, I also grow a larger species that is relatively common in local gardens.  This plant has a more erect growth habit with long spines on large pads.  The pads flop over during the winter but do not shrivel as much as those of O. humifusa.  There may be a tag buried down in the middle of the clump, but I am disinclined to search for it.  This will have to remain “Opuntia sp.

Opuntia sp.
Opuntia sp.

Both prickly pears are hardy, tolerant of humidity and rain, and easy to propagate from pads pulled off the main plant.  I’m not sure if either of our children will be interested in gardening, but I hope someday to be able to pass on to them a piece of great grandma’s cactus.


Alien sea creatures?

A tentacled horror from beyond space and time
Aristolochia fimbriata flower
Aristolochia fimbriata flower

The flowers of the white-veined pipevine, Aristolochia fimbriata, resemble some strange sea creature with an array of tentacles surrounding a rugose head and dark maw.  The “mouth” won’t consume anything larger than the small flies that it attracts as pollinators, but the flowers aren’t the only thing about this plant that is vaguely Lovecraftian.  A. fimbriata is also a host plant for the sinister, spiky caterpillars of the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor).

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

It has been suggested [1] that pipevine swallowtail caterpillars mimic tropical Onychophorans (velvet worms), and the two horns do give it vague resemblance.  I’m not sure the theory makes sense, though.  The caterpillars’ diet of toxic Aristolochia leaves probably makes them less palatable than the velvet worms they are supposedly mimicking for protection, and some other caterpillars that feed on toxic plants (e.g. Monarch and Gulf Fritillary larvae) also have spikes or tendrils as part of their warning to predators.

The heart shaped leaves that the caterpillars feed on are as beautiful as the flowers are weird:

Variegated foliage of Aristolochia fimbriata

Many Aristolochia species are large, climbing vines, but the stems of A. fimbriata stay small, no more than a foot or two long, and instead of twining, they creep along the ground around other garden plants.  This is a plant that plays well with others.

Seed production is quite prolific in my garden, and in some flowerbeds the plants have started to form a very pretty summer ground-cover.  Nevertheless, A. fimbriata doesn’t seem to be an invasive species; the seedlings surround the original mother plants and haven’t spread to other parts of the garden.  And in any case, biological control comes on blue and black swallow-tailed wings.

A. fimbriata is a subtropical species native to southern Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.  Its foliage turns to mush at the first frost, but the tuberous roots are completely hardy here in the piedmont.  Seed also overwinters in the mulch of my flowerbeds and sprouts in the spring.

The butterflies arrived early this year, and the first crop of caterpillars have reduced many plants to stubs.  Now, there are chrysalids scattered around the garden.  When ready to metamorphose, the caterpillars will travel a considerable distance to find a good spot:

Pipevine swallowtail chrysalis on a thornless blackberry, about fifteen feet away from the nearest A. fimbriata plants.

The butterflies will probably emerge and lay the next generation of eggs  just about the time the foliage starts to look good again, but hosting such beautiful insects in the garden is well worth a little leaf damage.


[1] “It has been suggested”–The passive voice here is a weaselly way of indicating that I have read this in various places but haven’t been able to track down the original source.

May flowers

I love bright red flowers.  Hummingbirds also love red flowers, and I love having hummingbirds in the garden.  Therefore, I plant a lot of red flowers.  Here are a few that are blooming now:

Spigelia marilandica (Woodland Pinkroot)

Spigelia marilandica flowers
Spigelia marilandica

Spigelia marilandica is one of the most beautiful North American wildflowers, and I am trying to spread it around the garden wherever I have the morning sun/afternoon shade that it likes.  Seed is difficult to collect, because the seed capsules explode when ripe, propelling the seed some distance from the mother plant.  I carefully dig up the resulting volunteer seedlings and move them to new spots.  The flowers have the classic “red tube” appearance of hummingbird pollinated plants, and the flaring petals can be yellow or green.  S. marilandica is native to the southeastern U.S., including extreme southwestern North Carolina (Cherokee and Macon County) [1].

Silene virginica ‘Jackson Valentine’ (Fire Pink)

Silene virginica

Silene virginica is native to the NC piedmont, although this particular clone comes from Alabama.  S. virginica is usually short lived and needs to be frequently propagated from seed, but the nursery that sells ‘Jackson Valentine’ claims it will survive for several years.  This is year two, so we shall see.

Hippeastrum ‘Red Rascal’

Hippeastrum ‘Red Rascal,’ blowing out the sensor on my iPhone camera

Many people know Hippeastrum, because they are the “Amaryllis” bulbs sold around Christmas time, but in Zone 7 and southwards, they’re worth trying in the garden.  Hippeastrum x Johnsonii and the ‘Mead Strain’ of H. vittatum hybrids are the best known hardy varieties of Hippeastrum, and I have planted both.  However, this spring the best show was put on by this little Sonatini hybrid that I planted last year.  Supposedly, ‘Red Rascal’ has been bred for cold tolerance, so it will be interesting to see how it does long term.  I won’t be surprised it it thrives.  A surprising number of South American bulbs do well in North Carolina, as long as the bulbs are planted six or eight inches deep and well mulched.

Sprekelia formosissima (Jacobean Lily)

Sprekelia formosissima

A native of Mexico, Sprekelia formosissima is a close relative of Hippeastrum. It  is supposedly hardy in eastern North Carolina, but I haven’t had the courage to risk my plants yet.  Instead, I grow a clump of bulbs in a 10″ diameter pot and over-winter them in the greenhouse with my other tropical amaryllids.

Stenomesson miniatum

Stenomesson miniatum flower
Stenomesson miniatum, another South American amaryllid

Stenomesson miniatum is from Peru, so I don’t think there’s any chance it would survive a winter out in the garden.  Like Sprekelia formosissima, it stays dry and warm in the greenhouse during the winter and goes outside when the danger of frost is past.  The little flowers are orange, but I like orange flowers just as well as red.  The bell shape is a clear indicator of hummingbird pollination.


[1] Weakley, A.S. (2015) Flora of the Southern and Mid Atlantic States.  University of North Carolina Herbarium, Chapel Hill, NC.


Box turtles

Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) crossing the road on Easter Sunday.

Yesterday, I was out in the garden and looked down to see one of the resident box turtles right next to my foot.  The kids and a neighbor friend were running around having a nerf gun battle, so I moved the turtle to a quiet spot where he wouldn’t be stepped on and gave him a couple of strawberries.


Om nom nom

Each eastern box turtle has a unique pattern of markings, and by the spots on his head and carapace, I recognize this turtle as the one we have named Percy Shelley.  Here he is in 2010 and 2013:

same turtle
The mess on Percy’s chin in the right picture suggests he has been eating slugs or earthworms.

With its terrestrial habits, its domed shell, and its elephant-like feet, the eastern box turtle resembles a little tortoise, but it is actually a terrestrial member of the pond turtle family (Emydidae).  Its common name, box turtle, comes from the hinged plastron which gives it the ability to close up tight like a sealed box.

The underside of a sealed box turtle showing the plastron hinge. Its head is to the right.

As you might guess from its scientific name–Terrapene carolina carolina–the eastern box turtle is very much a native of the NC piedmont.  In 1979, it was designated the official State Reptile of North Carolina.

It’s not clear that being the State Reptile has done box turtles much good.  They’re still relatively common, but numbers are almost certainly declining due to development and increased traffic on roads.  Box turtles live in relatively small territories, but during the summer they’ll go walkabout, especially on humid mornings after rain.  Many are killed by cars, and I have found turtles with cracked and healed shells suggesting that they had a narrow escape.

When it is safe to do so, I always stop to help turtles across the road. If you want to do the same, be sure to move the turtle in the direction it was headed, so it won’t have to try crossing the road again. And please please make sure that it is safe before getting out of the car.  People have been killed by traffic trying to help turtles across the road.

A very pretty half-grown turtle I found crossing a road last summer.

When we first put up the deer fence, I worried a bit about trapping wild box turtles inside the fence.  It has now been more than five years since the fence went up, and our local residents seem to be doing fine.  Either they have ways of getting through (or under) the fence, or the garden gives them everything they need to survive.  Percy Shelley seems to be an adult male, and I have seen at least one slightly smaller female.  From time to time, I also run across young turtles in the garden, including tiny hatchlings.

Three tiny hatchlings, together with their eggshells, that I uncovered in a damp mulch pile. Each hatchling still has its little egg tooth at the tip of its beak.

The baby box turtle’s carapace becomes more domed as it ages.  The little hatchlings, with their flatter shells, look a lot like their aquatic relatives:

I’m not sure if this hatchling is a yellow bellied slider or a river cooter. I gave it a lift down to the water, as it was heading in the wrong direction.
Hatchling box turtle with carapace not much more domed than its aquatic cousin
A slightly older juvenile rescued from in front of the lawn mower. Its carapace is still fairly flat.

If you want to make your piedmont garden more box turtle-friendly, consider adding a nice pile of wood chips in a quiet corner and leave fallen leaves to rot undisturbed in areas where they don’t disrupt your landscaping.  Salamanders and lizards will also appreciate the effort.  The turtles might like a shallow dish of water, especially during dry weather, but avoid deep, steep-sided garden ponds that a box turtle could drown in.  Box turtles eat a lot of worms, slugs, and snails, so avoid toxic slug pellets.

If you find a turtle crossing the road, please don’t be tempted to take it home to your garden, no matter how turtle-friendly you have made it.  A turtle moved from its home territory will have much more difficulty finding food and safe places to hibernate, and it may be killed trying to find its way back to familiar land.

Bigleaf magnolia

As I was getting ready for work this morning, I glanced out the window and noticed a blob of white in the woods.  One of my bigleaf magnolias is blooming, and its dinner-plate sized flower is hard to miss.  That’s flower singular; there’s only one this year, but such a large bloom on a  5-foot (1.5 m) tall sapling is still impressive. The curling petals are each about 8″ (20 cm) long, and the flower has a natural spread of about 12″ (30 cm).  Even that is dwarfed by the giant 24″ (61 cm) leaves.


The bigleaf magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla, is native to a couple of counties in the western North Carolina piedmont and, more broadly, to the southern Appalachians southeast to Louisiana.  If you live in the Durham/Chapel Hill/Raleigh area, you can see a stand of trees in Chapel Hill, in Battle Park.

The closely related Magnolia ashei (syn. Magnolia macrophylla subsp. ashei) is found only along the Apalachicola River in northern Florida.  This is a smaller tree, often a large shrub, with proportionally smaller leaves and flowers (though still very large compared to most trees).

Both Magnolia macrophylla and M. ashei are fantastic garden plants.  The flowers are beautiful and wonderfully fragrant, though short-lived, and children are fascinated by the giant leaves.  I have planted three young trees at the edge of the woods in partial shade.  Two were labeled M. macrophylla and one M. ashei, though to be honest, I can’t see any difference between them.  The flowering tree is the one that was labeled M. ashei, and that species is reported to bloom when very young.  However, the size of the flower seems to be a better match for M. macrophylla.  I don’t know.  Perhaps it is a garden hybrid of the two.

Last year’s flower. This year’s is somewhat larger.