Six on Satuday #23, March 17, 2018

After a couple of weeks away, I finally have some interesting material for Six on Saturday. Or, more accurately perhaps, I have one really interesting plant and some filler material to show you.  As always, visit The Propagator for his weekly six and for links to Six on Saturday posts by other garden bloggers.

1.  Eithea blumenavia


This lovely little flower is a miniature amaryllid, related to Hippeastrum, from southern Brazil. Unlike most Hippeastrum species, you can grow a nice little clump of E. blumenavia in a pot as small as 4″ (10 cm diameter).  My plant blooms intermittently throughout the year, but mostly in spring and early summer.  E. blumenavia can be a little difficult to find for sale but is well worth growing if you can locate some bulbs or seed.  Unfortunately, my clone does not seem to be self-fertile.

2.  Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’


This is a relatively recent hybrid (2013?) which has become very popular. I think it is one of the best hellebores on the market today, both for its flowers and its slightly variegated foliage

3. Grape hyacinths (Muscari)


This pretty, dark flowered grape hyacinth started as a volunteer seedling, origin unknown.  There are probably enough bulbs now to dig up and transplant around the garden.  Trouble is, that would require me to remember them after they have gone dormant and disappeared under the summer perennials.

4. Bicolored daffodil (Narcissus)


I really like the orange cup and later bloom time (relative to the early yellows) of this bicolored daffodil growing among some thornless blackberry stems. I wish there were daffodils that were this same orange color all over.  Also, I wish I could remember what clone these are.

5. Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea)


The fuzzy-felted new leaves of Hydrangea quercifolia are completely unfazed by our erratic spring weather, which has been fluctuating between the uppers 20s and mid 70s (-3 to 24 C).  As someone once said, “North Carolina has two seasons:  hot and random.”

6.  Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Blue Wave’


Hydrangea ‘Blue Wave’ is an utterly gorgeous lacecap, but unfortunately it does not deal well with our spring weather.  When dormant, it is very hardy, easily tolerating the low of 3 F (-16 C) this winter, but warm weather in late winter encourages it to start growing early.  The emerging leaves are sensitive to the slightest frost, and if they are killed the plant won’t bloom.  New growth will sprout from the base, but the stems do not bloom until their second year.  Since we almost always have a prolonged frost-free period in January or February, followed by one or more late frosts, it has been six years since I got a good bloom off this shrub.

Later this spring, I think it will probably dig it up and replace it with something better suited to our climate.


Toads and “toads” in the garden

I saw the first toad of the year last week, so this seems like a good time for a post about these garden residents who are some of my favorite amphibians.  In addition to the true toads, we also have a couple of “toads”–species that are not in the toad family, Bufonidae, but share the common name because of their terrestrial habits.

1. American toads and/or Fowler’s toads

Judging by the multiple warts in some of its dark spots, I think this is a Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri)

In the NC piedmont, the true toads are represented by the American toad (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus) and Fowler’s toad (Anaxyrus fowleri, formerly Bufo fowleri). I’m not entirely sure which species we have in the garden.  Fowler’s toads are here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if American toads are too.  I haven’t paid enough attention to be certain.  Although they are the most common amphibians in my garden, I find that I don’t have many photographs of them.  Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, exactly; I love having them around and think they have much more character than their froggy cousins, but I don’t go rushing off for a camera whenever I find one hopping across the garden path.

Staying cool in the bog garden on a hot summer day.

True toads exude bufotoxins, a witches’ brew of chemicals, including cardiac glycosides and neurotransmitter analogs, from their skin and especially from the bean-shaped parotid glands behind their eyes.  When I was a teenager, we had a dog who loved to lick toads.  They always made her wrinkle her lips and foam at the mouth, but she never learned to avoid them.  I’m not sure if she was getting a buzz off the bufotoxin, or if she lived in eternal hope that the next toad would be the one that tasted good.  In any case, it’s probably a good idea to wash your hands after you pick up a toad.

Around the same time that we had the toad-licking dog, I kept a recently metamorphosed toadlet as a pet for a summer.  It soon became quite tame and would get very excited whenever I opened the top of the terrarium.  The way to a toad’s heart is definitely through its stomach.  If you have never fed a toad, do yourself a favor and give the next one you find a large earthworm.  The way a toad uses its hands to shovel the wriggly spaghetti into its mouth is both fascinating and hilarious.

2. Eastern spadefoot

Eastern spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii).  You’d look grumpy too, if you had been unceremoniously unearthed and then rinsed clean of dirt to make a better photograph.

The eastern spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) is a beautiful little amphibian, and I was thrilled to discover that they live in my garden.  It’s rather surprising that they are here.  S. holbrookii is primarily a species of the sandy coastal plain, and we’re at the very edge of its recorded range.  Their presence in the garden might even be a minor range extension, as the NC Museum of Natural Sciences doesn’t seem to have any specimens collected in Orange County.  But despite our dense piedmont clay not being their preferred habitat, I stumble across a spadefoot every year or two, suggesting that there is a small breeding population in the vicinity.  About half of them have been accidentally unearthed while I was gardening, and the other half were hopping around on the surface, usually at night or early in the morning during warm, wet weather.

Posing with some British soldiers lichen (Cladonia cristatella).  It matches the spots on the spadefoot’s sides.

Spadefoots can be distinguished at a glance from true toads by their vertical pupils; other toads have horizontal pupils.  If you gently pick one up and turn it over, you will see the hard,  brownish spades on its hind feet which allow it to burrow out of sight.

3.   Eastern narrowmouth toad

Eastern narrowmouth toads (Gastrophryne carolinensis) eat mostly ants.

Like the eastern spadefoot, the eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis) is another species that you are much more likely to hear than see.  If you have ever heard the desperate bleating of a tormented lamb emanating from the leaf litter after rain, you have heard an eastern narrowmouth toad.  They seem to be even less likely than the spadefoots to wander around on the surface, and in twenty years I have only found three.  Two of them I accidentally uncovered, but the one photographed here came to my attention because it was out during the day and had been found by a chipmunk.  I noticed the chipmunk repeatedly run up to a small object and then dance backwards when it hopped.  I’m not sure if the chipmunk was attacking (they sometimes prey on insects and other small animals) or playing, but when I rescued the narrowmouth toad, it didn’t seem to have suffered any damage.  Perhaps it was protected by its noxious skin secretions, just like a true toad.

Ignore the pathetic state of the grass, and appreciate the beautiful reddish brown stripes on the narrowmouth toad’s sides and forelegs


Over the past five or six years, an increasing number of vendors at the Durham and Carrboro Farmers’ Markets have been offering fresh culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale) in the autumn.  Ginger is a tropical plant, but it grows very well in North Carolina during the summer.  In late 2016, I noticed that several farms were also offering something new.  It looked like ginger, but the rhizomes were orange.  I hadn’t realized that turmeric also comes from a member of the ginger family (Curcuma longa).

I bought a small piece of turmeric rhizome and stored it in a paper bag over the winter.  Some Z. officinale rhizomes purchased at the same time objected to this treatment and shriveled up, but the turmeric was tougher.  In spring 2017, I put it in a 5-gallon pot (that’s puny US gallons; approximately 4.2 imperial gallons or 19 liters), and it sprouted vigorously.  In October, I cut the leafy stems and put the pot in the crawl space of our house where it would stay cool and dry.  When I dumped out the soil this past Saturday, this is what I found.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa), dormant rhizomes

The smaller piece has gone to the kitchen, and I have replanted the larger piece along with a couple of other culinary gingers.  One vendor at the Durham Farmers’ Market had greater galangal (Alpinia galanga) for sale last autumn, and the chunk that I bought is already sprouting.  Maybe home-grown galangal will be less fibrous than the semi-mummified pieces of rhizome for sale at the local Asian supermarket.  I’m also trying again with another piece of Z. officinale.

Looking forward to a spicy autumn.


The interior of a fresh turmeric rhizome is the color of a good, fresh carrot and has an earthy scent.