Coral beans

Erythrina x bidwillii (hybrid coral bean)

In late summer, the brightest red color in my garden comes from the flowers of Erythrina x bidwillii, a hybrid coral bean bred in the 1840s.  Although it was bred at a botanical garden in Australia, the parents of E. x bidwilli are a South American species, E. crista-galli, and a North American, E. herbacea.  Surprisingly, genes from the subtropical E. crista-galli make this hybrid easier to grow and bloom in my garden than E. herbacea which is actually native to North Carolina.

On a trip to the South Carolina lowcountry in early May eight years ago, I noticed spikes of bright red, tubular flowers growing from nondescript clumps of foliage.  These were the flowers of E. herbacea, obviously adapted for pollination by the ruby throated hummingbirds that migrate into the region earlier in the spring.  E. herbacea reaches northern limit of its natural range in the coastal plain of North Carolina, so I expected that it could be grown in my garden with, perhaps, a little protection in winter.

Erythrina herbacea blooming in my greenhouse in late March.

I obtained some seed and found that they were easy to germinate, as long as I nicked the very hard seed coat with a sharp knife (NOTE:  The bright red seeds are extremely poisonous.  Keep away from children).  The seedlings grew fast in the greenhouse and when planted outside, they have survived the winter cold as long as I put them in a sunny, well drained spot.  However, none of the outdoor plants have ever flowered.

The problem seems to be that E. herbacea, like Hydrangea macrophylla and some other garden shrubs, blooms on old wood.  That is, it flowers on young branches growing off the stems produced in the previous year.  While the roots of my plants survive the winter buried deep in the soil, the exposed branches are destroyed by freezing temperatures.  Each spring, the plants produce a new crown of branches, but they never retain any mature stems that could flower.

In the greenhouse, the plants flower beautifully, as long as I give them a dry rest and don’t prune too vigorously (though some pruning is necessary to keep the long, spiny stems under control).  An added bonus is that in the frost-free greenhouse, I can raise the large, tuberous base of the plant above the surface for added interest.

Tuberous base of Erythrina herbacea partially raised above the soil surface

E. crista-galli is generally rated hardy to about zone 9, so it is unlikely to survive in my zone 7 garden. However, it has the useful characteristic of blooming on new wood. With E. x bidwillii, I get the best of both parents. The roots seem reasonably hardy, and although the above-ground stems die in winter, new growth flowers reliably each year.  I usually get a few flowers in June and then a larger flush in August/September continuing intermittently until first frost.

Another view of an Erythrina x bidwilli inflorescence. The palmate foliage at left is a fig, Ficus carica ‘Conadria’

Six on Saturday #7

Another Saturday, another six things in the garden.  Thanks to The Propagator for suggesting this idea and for hosting links to other ‘Six on Saturday’ participants.

1. Lilium catesbaei (pine lily)

Lilium catesbaei

Lilium catesbaei grows on the coastal plain from southern Virginia to eastern Louisiana.  It is a plant of  open, fire-dependent pine savannas, where it often grows among carnivorous plants, orchids, and other plants that favor damp, acidic conditions.  L. catesbaei is rarely available from nurseries, but about fifteen years ago, I grew a batch from seed obtained from another member of the local orchid society.  In recent years, the number of blooming plants has decreased until this year there are only two flowering.  I think it may be time to dump out the pots, assess what I have left, and repot in fresh soil.

2.  Lantana camara ‘Miss Huff’ (Hardy Lantana)

Lantana ‘Miss Huff’

Lantana ‘Miss Huff’ seems to be the hardiest commercially available clone of L. camara, and it is the only one that has successfully over-wintered in my garden.  I have three plants in sunny, moderately dry spots.  They freeze to the ground each winter and new growth emerges several weeks after the last frost.  By late summer, the bushes are about 6′ (~2 m) tall and wide.  Usually, I see the first flowers at the end of May, and then the plant blooms non-stop until the first frost.  Buds and young flowers are bright yellow-orange, maturing to a darker orange and then fading to pink before dropping.

Papilio glaucus on Lantana ‘Miss Huff’

The flowers are moderately attractive to hummingbirds and attract large numbers of butterflies.  It’s a great plant for guaranteed color even in the hottest and driest summers.

3.  Vernonia glauca (Broadlead Ironweed)

Vernonia glauca
Vernonia glauca

Vernonia glauca is a true piedmont native, found primarily in Virginia and North Carolina.  I obtained seed about ten years ago from the North Carolina Botanical Garden seed distribution program.  I initially grew them at the back of a flower bed with other tall perennials, but the seeds, each with a tuft of fluff, have been carried on the wind all over the garden.  At this point, it is almost a weed, and the long taproot makes it very difficult to eliminate.  Beware seeds that have their own parachute.

4.  Titanotrichum oldhamii

T_oldhamii 1

T_oldhamii 2
Titanotrichum oldhamii

I currently have two semi-hardy gesneriads blooming in the garden.  The first, Titanotrichum oldhamii, is native to China (Fujian Province), Taiwan, and Japan.  I love the bright yellow flowers that resemble foxgloves.  I bought my T. oldhamii plant last year, so it has survived one winter in the garden so far, and has come back bigger and stronger this year.  It is growing in the shade of a large Callicarpa americana (American beautyberry) in fairly rich, well drained soil.

5.  Seemannia nematanthodes ‘Evita’

Seemannia nematanthodes ‘Evita’

The second gesneriad is a native of Argentina.  Seemannia nematanthodes ‘Evita’ seems to grow equally well in the ground or in pots and hanging baskets.  I started with a couple of stems in a 3″ diameter pot, but the plant expands exponentially each year.  In autumn, the above-ground stems, thin underground rhizomes, and roots die back, leaving small, scaly rhizome segments that look disturbingly like maggots.  These rhizomes can be left in the soil or stored dry in a plastic bag.

In addition to growing Seemannia ‘Evita’ in semi-shaded beds around the garden, I keep a couple of potted plants.  When it is time to repot in early spring, I usually have far too many rhizomes, so I add the extras to the flower beds.  Consequently, I don’t really know how hardy Seemannia ‘Evita’ is, because I can’t be sure which of the plants blooming now are derived from rhizomes that survived the winter in the ground, and which are from rhizomes planted this spring.

6.  ‘Celeste’ figs


These figs from the garden were dessert yesterday. I grow three varieties of Ficus carica:  Celeste, Black Mission, and Conadria.  Of the three, Celeste is the hardiest and most productive, so it isn’t surprising that it is the most commonly grown variety in this part of North Carolina.  Celeste figs are small but intensely sweet, and if I don’t pay close attention they’re eaten by birds, squirrels, wasps and ants as soon as they are ripe.

That’s my six for this week.  Now, I have to go outside and attempt to dislodge a squirrel that is building its nest under the solar panels.  Hope I don’t fall off the roof.

Six on Saturday #6

After missing several weeks due to traveling, I’m back with Six on Saturday.  As always, check The Propagator’s blog for links to other garden bloggers who are also posting their six.

1. Lycoris radiata var. pumila (hurricane lily, red spider lily)

Lycoris radiata
Lycoris radiata var. pumila

Hurricane lilies (really amaryllids, not true lilies) are so named because because they bloom in late summer–hurricane season in the southeastern United States.  The classic heirloom bulb of southern gardens is Lycoris radiata var. radiata, a sterile triploid introduced from Japan in the mid 1800s.  It blooms in late August, and my bulbs are still slumbering underground.  L. radiata var. pumila is a fertile diploid, presumably the original wild type form native to China.  For some reason, these plants consistently bloom a few weeks earlier than the triploids.

L. radiata is one of the winter-foliage Lycoris.  Shortly after blooming it produces a rosette of leaves that persist all winter, dying back in late spring.  Since the plant grows in winter, it is less hardy than the spring-foliage types like those I discussed in a previous Six on Saturday, and I’m not sure it would do well much further north than North Carolina.

2.  Zephyranthes candida (white rain lily)

Zephyranthes candida
Zephyranthes candida (white rain lily)

After dry weather for most of July, August has been quite wet, and the rain has induced several rain lily species to bloom.  This is Zephyranthes candida, originally from southern South America but now more widely naturalized.  Superficially, it resembles a smaller version of the piedmont native Z. atamasco, but while Z. atamasco blooms in spring, Z. candida–like many tropical Zephyranthes–blooms in summer a few days after rain.

3.  Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal flower)

Lobelia cardinalis
Lobelia cardinalis

Lobelia cardinalis is native to the piedmont and can sometimes be found growing in sun or part shade along creeks or beside ponds.  Hummingbirds absolutely love the flowers.  These are volunteer plants originating from very tiny seed that drifted from a plant that I put in a flowerbed about twenty feet away.  After several years, I now have about a dozen blooming plants.  The best ones have taken root in wet soil at the point where the foundation and gutter drains empty, down-slope from the house.  I have been thinking about building a pond or bog garden there, but for now it is just a wilderness of Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium viminium), interspersed with these shocking red spikes.

Last week, while we were on holiday in eastern Maine, I saw some wild plants blooming along a stream close to the Canadian border, about 600 miles (965 km) north of my garden in North Carolina.  I find it interesting that the plants in both locations bloom at exactly the same time, despite the longer growing season and warmer temperatures here in the south.

4. Hedychium coronarium (white butterfly ginger)

Hedychium coronarium

This ginger from the foothills of the himalayas is probably the hardiest and most vigorous ornamental ginger for cultivation in the NC piedmont.  The stems grow about 6′ (1.8 m) tall, and the fragrance of the flowers is amazing.  Unlike my cannas, which look pretty ratty after being chewed on all summer long by Japanese beetles and canna leaf roller caterpillars, the foliage of this H. coronarium is always pristine.

5.  Fuchsia ‘Sanihanf’

Fuchsia 'Sanihanf'
Fuchsia ‘Sanihanf’

After my paternal grandfather retired, he grew fuchsias in his garden and greenhouse in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  I wanted to remember grandpa by growing them in my garden too, but most fuchsias expire from the heat before spring is half over in North Carolina.  This Japanese hybrid, which was advertised as heat tolerant, seems to be the real deal.  I bought it in April 2016, so it has now survived two NC summers and continues to bloom even when the days are in the 90s (32-37 C) and nights don’t drop below 70 (21 C).  It might survive the winter outside in a sheltered spot, but not wanting to risk it, I grow it in a hanging pot and keep it in the greenhouse in cold weather.

6. Lilium formosanum (Formosa lily)

Lilium formosanum

Most L. formosanum bulbs produce a single stem topped with four or five flowers, but this plant has branched and re-branched to produce a large cluster of flowers.  The stems are slightly flattened and wider than usual, so I think it may be abnormal fasciation (cresting).

I started with two bulbs about eight years ago, but every year I scatter seed around, and now there are flowering plants throughout the garden.

6b.  flower crab spider (Thomisidae)

IMG_7559 crop
Crab spider, perhaps Misumenoides formosipes,  in ambush

While trying to decide which photo of L. formosanum to use, I realized that I had inadvertently photographed a little white crab spider that was hiding inside one of the lily flowers.  Some species can change color to match the flower they are sitting on and are capable of capturing quite large prey.  I’m not sure if she would be strong enough to tackle one of the big sphinx moths that pollinate L. formosanum, but I have seen similar spiders ambush and consume swallowtail butterflies


Spiders of autumn

Argiope aurantia
Argiope aurantia

A sign that we are definitely in late summer, inching inexorably towards autumn:  yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) have started to spin their webs among the flower beds.  Every year, they seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, but I suppose they have been present all spring and summer and have finally become large enough for me to notice.  They are still not full size and will grow noticeably bigger and fatter in the next month.

They seem to love to spin their webs in the lantana bushes, where they capture many butterflies.

Sometimes they catch bigger prey.

One morning last September, I noticed that the cats were intent on something squeaking pathetically in a large Lantana ‘Miss Huff’.  It was a hummingbird trapped in the web of a very large garden spider.   In this somewhat blurry photo, the spider is at the top of the frame, slowly descending her web towards the trapped bird.

Where is Bilbo Baggins wielding Sting when you need him?

At first I thought that I was too late and the bird had already been bitten, because when I pulled it from the web, it just lay quivering in the palm of my hand.


I was trying to decide if I needed to administer the coup de grâce, when I realized that the bird was immobilized by a few strands of almost invisible spider silk.  After I carefully removed the threads from its wings and tail, it sat up in my hand and then zoomed away into the trees.

If you have a strong stomach, a web search will turn up photos of less fortunate hummers, so if you have a hummingbird feeder or plants that attract them, it might be a good idea to relocate garden spiders that build their webs to close to the flight paths.


Sometimes you grow a plant for three years, and it finally decides to bloom just as you are going out of town for a week.

As we were rushing around making last minute preparations to leave for the airport, I noticed these buds emerging from a northern spiderlily bulb (Hymenocallis occidentalis).


Although Hymenocallis are tough, long lived bulbs, their flowers subscribe to the philosophy “live fast, die young.”  I was convinced that by the time we got home, I’d find nothing but a wilting inflorescence topped by shriveled, brownish tissue.  A cold front that dropped the temperature below 90 F may have helped to prolong the life of the flowers, because when we arrived home yesterday I found that the blooms weren’t completely senescent.  They had sustained significant damage from heavy rain, but I think you can still appreciate the fireworks-like quality of the mass of spidery flowers.


The genus Hymenocallis ranges from the southeastern United States to northern South America, and as its common name suggests, H. occidentalis is the northernmost species, growing from northern Florida to eastern Texas and up the Mississippi valley as far as southern Illinois and Indiana.  H. occidentalis often grows in moist woodland, so it is probably one of the best members of the genus for garden cultivation, particularly in the north.  Other U.S. species grow in wetlands or rivers as emergent water plants and would probably require a pond or bog garden.

Coastal Carolina spiderlily (Hymenocallis crassifolia) blooming in late May
I found these H. crassifolia plants growing in the Lumber river in southeastern North Carolina, near the South Carolina state line.

Some of the Mexican or Caribbean species (e.g. H. ‘Tropical Giant’) grow well in regular garden conditions and are fairly hardy if planted deep and mulched well.  In my garden, I also grow the Mexican species H. pimana and H. ‘New Lion’, a plant of uncertain identity (species or hybrid?) originating from a garden in somewhere in Nuevo León, Mexico.  Because its flowers open sequentially, it blooms over a longer period than H. occidentalis but is not so spectacular.

Hymenocallis ‘New Lion’

I also grow H. traubii, a miniature wetland species native to Florida, in a pot that I sit in a tray of water.  It seems to produce only two flowers per inflorescence, but they are large for the size of the plant.

Hymenocallis traubii blooming in a 6″ (15 cm) diameter pot

Moth-pollinated Hymenocallis flowers are fragrant and, as you can see from these photos, invariably white.  The genus gets its scientific name, which means ‘beautiful membrane’, from the tissue that connects the base of the stamens.  This cup varies in size from species to species and is shared by Ismene, a genus of closely related bulbs from Peru.  Ismene and Hymenocallis are distinguished primarily by their foliage.  In Hymenocallis, the leaves are arranged in a simple rosette, while in Ismene, the leaf bases are clasped together to form a pseudostem.  Also, Hymenocallis flowers tend to face up, while Ismene flowers are held horizontally, facing out.

Two old primary hybrids of Ismene are readily available from bulb vendors in the Spring:  Ismene ‘Sulphur Queen’ and Ismene x festalis.  Both are large plants that grow well in 5-gallon or larger nursery pots, and I. x festalis, at least, is reliably hardy in my garden.  I have been growing I. ‘Sulphur Queen’ in a pot, but I think by the end of this year I’ll finally have enough bulbs to try a few in the ground.

Ismene ‘Sulphur Queen’. The strongly fragrant flowers of this hybrid open pale yellow and fade to cream because of the genetic influence of one of its parents, the bright yellow Ismene amancaes.

Some I. x festalis clones have a tendency to split, producing many small bulbs, instead of flowering.  It’s worth seeking out I. x festalis ‘Zwanenburg’, which is a reliable bloomer.

Ismene x festalis ‘Zwanenburg’ in the garden

Update:  August 20, 2017

Hymenocallis occidentalis grown in part shade with Iris tectorum and Aquilegia canadensis

One week after the first H. occidentalis bulb bloomed, a second is flowering.  I planted this bulb in a more shady spot, because I wasn’t sure how much sun H. occidentalis needed.  As you can see, it has fewer flowers than the one planted in full sun, but I was able to get a picture of fresh, undamaged blooms.  My impression is that H. occidentalis has larger flowers than my other Hymenocallis, but I’ll need to make measurements of other plants next year to be sure