Bambi Shrugged

A sad, and unfortunately common, sight this time of year is hosta plants looking like this:

Hosta is apparently very popular with gardeners in our region, but it is equally popular with deer. By mid-summer, hosta plants are often chewed down to tattered stems. If you are frustrated that your hosta is just salad for the local deer population, perhaps it is time to consider a great alternative. 

Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ (pronounced “HEW-ker-ah vill-OH-sah”)

Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ (common name Coral Bells or Alumroot) is a native plant about the same size and shape as most hostas, and it grows well in the same conditions. Part shade is fine, and it prefers soil with lots of organic matter, so it is happy under trees and shrubs, especially if fall leaves are left in place. Heuchera is surprisingly drought tolerant once established, so it is an option for dry shade. The leaves are soft and fuzzy and semi-evergreen. They don’t die back completely in the winter, but snow and ice will leave them a bit tattered by springtime. You can clip off any damaged areas before new growth appears. The leaves are far less susceptible to slugs and scorching than hosta leaves, so Heuchera looks better for much longer in the growing season than hosta does.

As the name suggests, ‘Autumn Bride’ blooms with big, white, showy flowers from late summer into fall. The flowers open over a period of weeks, with tiny buds on a stalk rising 6 to 10 inches above the leaves, opening to fluffy flowers loaded with nectar for bees stocking up for winter.

Heuchera flowers sustain bees late in the season
Each stalk holds many tiny flowers full of nectar and pollen

But the best thing about Heuchera is that deer apparently hate it! 

Deer stepped on this Heuchera, and devoured the hosta around it, but they left Heuchera alone!

The common name, “Alumroot,” refers to the plant’s very astringent quality, similar to the effect of the mineral, alum. Finely ground roots of the plant have been used for generations as an astringent to treat external wounds, including to stop bleeding, and for various internal ailments. The leaves are also astringent, and though deer will occasionally try a bite, they soon learn to avoid it.

Deer definitely prefer hosta

Heuchera is a genus of more than 50 species, all native to North America. ‘Autumn Bride’ is a selection of Heuchera villosa, which is native to the Eastern US, though the northern extent of the native range is subject to some dispute. Authorities differ on whether H. villosa and its cousin, Heuchera americana, were originally found as far north as New York, but both species do very well from Connecticut to the Carolinas and west to Arkansas and Oklahoma and are hardy in Zones 4-9.

Horticulture professionals have been busy developing hybrids of multiple species of Heuchera, crossing H. villosa and H. americana with species native to the American West, and inventing an array of multi-colored leaves and bright flowers. They also have crossed Heuchera with Tiarella, another native plant, further expanding the range of colors, leaf sizes, and flowers available in the trade. ‘Autumn Bride,’ at least initially, was a “selection” rather than a “cultivar” because it was propagated by seed from pollinated flowers rather than asexually by cuttings. While most nursery stock now is likely from asexual propagation, ‘Autumn Bride’ does reproduce consistently from seed, which offers some ecological advantage over hybrids or cultivars.

‘Autumn Bride’ brightens a late-season shade garden

Combining the lovely white flowers of ‘Autumn Bride’ with other shade perennials is easy.  It looks lovely with Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonnii ‘Hot Lips’), Christmas fern, Canadian Wild Ginger, or White Wood Aster (all deer resistant plants). 

Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ is a great garden plant. And it is a definite improvement over all of the non-native hosta we see sadly reduced to celery stalks by voracious deer.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

How Did That Get Here?

If you like reliable, predictable, disciplined plants that remain where you put them and return every year, then this plant is not for you. Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is unreliable, eccentric, and unpredictable. But it also has the truest, deepest red flowers you are likely to find. It brings hummingbirds without fail, and is absolutely captivating!

Lobelia cardinalis, common name Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower blooms for weeks in late summer. The flower stalks are 3 to 5 feet tall, and the flowers open in succession from bottom to top. The flowering portion of the stem can be 2 or 3 feet long, and the leaves are deep green, providing a perfect background for the flowers.

Individual flowers open over several weeks

Cardinal Flower is nature’s original hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are drawn by the intense red color and plentiful nectar. The flowers are precisely shaped for pollination by hummingbirds, and the plant depends on hummingbirds for pollination. The flower’s pistil and stamens arch above the nectar supply, perfectly placed to brush the hummingbird’s head as it feeds. Pollen collects on top of the bird’s head, and when the hummingbird moves to the next flower, pollen is transferred.

The structure holding pollen just fits the top of a hummingbird’s head like a tiny cap, depositing pollen
Photo: Courtesy of Mary Anne Borge, @the-natural-web.org

Bees also visit Cardinal Flowers, but most of them can’t reach the nectar deep inside the long tubular flowers, so they have become “nectar thieves.” They bite a hole into the flower tube and suck out nectar from the base of the flower, completely avoiding the pollenating structure. They are considered “thieves” because they take nectar without providing pollination service to the plant. Nectar-for-pollination is the basis of the plant/pollinator relationship, and these bees are cheating! As long as there are enough hummingbirds around, though, Cardinal Flower will survive.

Honeybee and bumblebee avoiding the pollen structure and stealing nectar from the flower tubes

Lobelia likes wet, sunny locations, and is hardy in Zones 3 to 9. It is native to American wetlands, along ponds and streams, and is found from New Brunswick to Minnesota and south from Texas to Florida. Lobelia is considered a “short-lived” perennial. The original clump dies back after producing flowers, but it may send “off-sets” or shoots from the original clump into nearby areas, and it may also drop seeds around the original plant, thereby maintaining a presence. Or, it may not. Even in optimal conditions, Lobelia sometimes simply disappears from where it was planted, which is disappointing.

Seed pods form after flowering

As Lobelia finishes blooming, seed pods remain on the tall stalks where they ripen, producing lots of very tiny seeds. Larry Weaner, horticulturist, landscape designer, and native plant expert, explains that the seeds need to sit on top of open soil, exposed to sunlight, to germinate. So, he recommends disturbing the soil around Lobelia plants in the fall, and leaving the seed pods in place all winter to open up and drop their seeds. By roughing up the soil around the plants, you provide the open soil necessary for germination, increasing the likelihood of Lobelia coming up again where it was planted.

So, what makes Lobelia unpredictable, whimsical, and even a bit mysterious? We planted Lobelia in a sunny rain garden, theoretically a “perfect” location, but it disappeared after a few seasons. Several years later, it popped up in a dry meadow on the opposite side of the property, hundreds of feet away. How did the seeds move across the property?

Lobelia planted in a rain garden disappeared after 2 seasons
Lobelia appeared 6 years later, an acre away

The seeds are much too small to be eaten or carried by birds. Although it is conceivable the seeds are carried by wind, literature on the subject is far from conclusive. Larry Weaner’s observations suggest the seeds may attach themselves to soil, which is then carried by rainfall, but inevitably downhill.

So, how did this get here? The Lobelia on this property moved across a driveway, across lawn, and uphill to the other side of the house. A few years later, it also popped up across a patio in a fern garden, and then over a hedge and under a huge cedar tree. Then it mysteriously appeared in a backyard shrub border. And it recently appeared by a downspout.

Lobelia volunteered in a fern garden
Lobelia also popped up in a shrub border
Near a downspout

At the Greenburgh Nature Center, we recently spotted Lobelia next to a path at least 100 yards away and around a corner from the only place on the property it was ever planted.

A little volunteer along a path

We are not sure why Cardinal Flower disappears from the places it’s planted, or how it moves around, or why it decides to appear where it does. We are starting to suspect that the seeds are carried on the soles of our shoes as we work in different parts of the garden, but we are open to other theories and observations!

In your own garden, if you want predictable, reliable perennials, there are lots of other great native plants to choose from. But if you enjoy a little mystery, a few surprises, a gorgeous plant, and happy hummingbirds, you will be delighted by Lobelia cardinalis.

Lobelia cardinalis catching the afternoon sun
THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

For the Birds

Pokeweed. You’ve probably seen this plant on roadsides, vacant lots, along hiking trails, and maybe even pulled it out of your own yard. It’s definitely a weed, and either a curse or a curiosity depending on your point of view. Considered a dangerous and poisonous plant by some, and a nutritious and delicious plant by others, we think of it as a valuable food source for over 30 species of native birds.

Phytolacca americana is commonly known as Pokeweed, Polk weed, Pokeberry, Poke root, Virginia poke, Poke sallit, Poke salad, Redweed, Redberry, Pigeonberry, Pocan bush, Red ink plant, and at least a dozen other names. As is often the case, the number of common names for a plant indicates the variety and duration of human experience with it. Pokeweed has a long and complicated relationship with humans.

Pokeweed is native to most of the US and is found now in all but a few states. It can reach 6 to 10 feet tall, spreads both by seed and rhizomes, and has a very deep tap root. It is a perennial that can live in a wide variety of conditions, which makes it a rather successful weed.

Pokeweed stands tall among other roadside weeds

Indigenous peoples used Pokeweed for medicinal purposes and as a dye, especially for painting their horses. The name “poke” may come from the Algonquian word “pocan,” meaning red dye. American colonists fermented the deep magenta juice of the berries to make ink. There are preserved letters from Civil War soldiers written in Pokeberry ink, which was much more available to them than imported ink.

Pokeweed berries yield a staining red juice

There is common agreement that all parts of the plant, if eaten raw, are toxic to humans and livestock, but agreement ends there. Some writers claim that Pokeweed is so poisonous it should not even be touched without gloves. Yet in most of the Southern US, Pokeweed has been hand-harvested as a staple of the local diet for generations. Some authorities say the root is the most poisonous part of the plant, and the berries are the least so. Other authorities say the berries are the most toxic part of the plant and eating even a few may be lethal. Many articles claim that Pokeweed poisoning can cause death, but after surveying historical records, a recent report found only 2 deaths from Pokeweed over a couple hundred years, and noted that one of those deaths was more likely caused by the medical treatment of the time, blood-letting.

Tiny pokeweed flowers open throughout the growing season
Pokeweed flowers attract pollinators, including hummingbirds

The role of Pokeweed as part of Southern US culture is memorialized in the song “Polk Salad Annie” written in 1968 by Tony Joe White and made popular by Elvis Presley.

“Everyday before supper time, she’d go down by the truck patch

And pick her a mess of Polk salad, and carry it home in a tow sack 

Polk salad Annie….”

Tony Joe White

Recognizing that Pokeweed is indeed toxic if eaten raw, recipes for polk salad, or poke sallit, require boiling the tender young leaves at least twice, and with two or three changes of water. The boiled greens are then sauteed in bacon fat and eaten like spinach or collard greens. Poke sallit festivals are still part of local traditions in the South every spring. But other than those circumstances, we do not recommend eating any part of Pokeweed, and children should be warned away from the berries.

We do suggest letting the plant live if you find it in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden. Pokeweed provides a real service to our native songbirds. Migrating birds store energy from eating ripening Pokeberries as they begin their journeys, and winter birds will eat the dried berries for as long as they last. Cardinals, mockingbirds, blue jays, robins, catbirds, bluebirds, mourning doves, and over 20 other species of native birds love Pokeberries. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals do, too.

Pollinated flowers develop interesting berries
As the berries ripen, the stems change color!

Pokeweed is interesting to watch, and it will definitely attract songbirds. So, if there is a spot near you where Pokeweed appears, we hope you can allow it to live its weedy, but useful, life.

For the birds.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

Worth a Mint

What makes a garden plant special? Beautiful flowers? Reliability? Long season of bloom? Easy care? Attractive to butterflies? Maybe even useful for humans? Mountain Mint checks all the boxes! This perennial garden plant is so valuable it’s a wonder we don’t see it everywhere.

The only problem with Mountain Mint is its name! The scientific name, Pycnanthemum, is a mouthful, and the common name “Mountain Mint” is just wrong. The plant does not come from the mountains, and it’s not a true mint. It’s actually a plant native to America’s meadows, from New England to the Midwest and from Florida to Texas. And unlike spearmint and peppermint, it is not in the mint genus, Mentha. (Though it does have a decidedly minty flavor, and can be a pretty good alternative.)

We have three species of Mountain Mint at the Nature Center: Pycnanthemum virginiana (“Virginia Mountain Mint”), Pycnanthemum tenufolium (“Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint”) and Pycnanthemum muticum (“Broad-leaved Mountain Mint”). All three grow in our Meadow in full sun, average soil, and without special care or irrigation.

Virginia Mountain Mint
Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint
Broad-leaved Mountain Mint

Our favorite is Broad-leaved Mountain Mint. The plant grows about 3 feet tall with shiny, dark green, and very minty leaves. In early summer, it produces a pair of fuzzy gray-green “bracts,” leaf-like structures that frame a cluster of flower buds at the very top of the plant. The flowers themselves are tiny little polka-dotted tubes that open sequentially over two to three months. The very long sequence of blooms keeps pollinators coming back all summer for fresh nectar.

Tiny flowers keep opening for months

Mountain Mint is incredibly valuable for pollinator gardens. It is loaded with nectar attractive to bees, butterflies, and a wide variety of other pollinating insects. It is very entertaining to count how many different species visit the flowers.

Honey bees love Mountain Mint
Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly
Clubbed Midas Fly is a native pollinator
Native bumblebees do, too!
Golden Digger Wasp sharing flowers with bees
Grey Hairstreak butterfly on Mountain Mint

Apart from its value to pollinators, Mountain Mint is a wonderful garden perennial. It is tough! Deer, rabbits, and woodchucks avoid it. Like most meadow plants, it is drought-tolerant and does best in full sun, though the Broad-leaved species may want more moisture than Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint. Both are hardy in Zones 3 through 9 and both do well in our Meadow without irrigation. The long season of bloom means Mountain Mint looks good well into the fall, and the seed heads add interest if left standing all winter.

September in the Meadow

Mountain Mint has been used by humans for a wide variety of purposes. Indigenous people in the Eastern US made a tea from the leaves to treat headache, stomach problems, and respiratory congestion. Dried leaves of Broad-leaved Mountain Mint are said to make an effective insect repellant when rubbed on skin or clothing. Carrying fresh sprigs in a pocket or under a hat-band helps keep gnats and mosquitos away from gardeners’ faces. The leaves of Broad-leaved Mountain Mint contain pulegone, a substance said to cause liver damage if ingested in significant quantity. But reliable sources assure us that the leaves may be used safely in teas and infusions, and we have some satisfactory experience with that…

A handful of chopped leaves from Broad-leaved Mountain Mint boiled for a few minutes with equal parts sugar and water, then allowed to steep until cool, makes a lovely scented infusion for use flavoring lemonade, iced tea, or even a specialty cocktail! Strain the liquid to remove the leaves and add the syrup to your preferred beverage. Mix a bit of the syrup with gin, lime juice, and elderflower liqueur, and you have a Mountain Mint Martini!

Cheers!
THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

Summer Buzzin’

Have you ever heard a plant hum?

On a sunny summer day, you can actually hear Shrubby St. John’s Wort humming. It’s not the plant itself, of course, but the sound of extremely happy bumblebees buzzing as they collect pollen from countless bright yellow pom-pom flowers.

“St. John’s wort” is the common name for a family of almost 500 plant species worldwide. The name refers to its time of bloom – around St. John’s Day on the Christian calendar, or June 24. “Wort” is the old English word for “plant,” especially plants known for their medicinal value. Perhaps you’ve heard St. John’s wort recommended as an herbal remedy for mild depression? That particular St. John’s wort is Hypericum perforatum, a weedy perennial native to Europe and now considered invasive in parts of North America.

 Shrubby St. John’s Wort in front of the Manor House

The “humming” plant we love is Hypericum prolificum, or Shrubby St. John’s Wort. It is a beautiful shrub, native to the US from New York west to Minnesota and south to Louisiana and Georgia. It does indeed start blooming at the end of June, and continues to dazzle for weeks into the summer. The scientific name “prolificum” refers to the enormous number of flowers the shrub produces. The shrub itself forms a rounded mound 3 to 4 feet tall and wide with small blue-green leaves.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort loaded with flowers

If you go shopping for Shrubby St. John’s Wort, you will likely see Hypericum frondosum, a very similar shrub with a cultivar called “Sunburst” that has slightly larger flowers. Its original native range is further south, in Tennessee and Kentucky, but it does perfectly well in southern New York gardens and throughout Zones 5 to 8. Another species, Hypericum kalmianum, is native to the Great Lakes region and hardy to Zone 4. While botanists can tell these three shrubs apart, most gardeners consider them virtually interchangeable. And all of them have year-round value as landscape plants.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort is essentially carefree, and makes an attractive foundation plant or hedge in full sun. It doesn’t need pruning, but you can shape it to suit your site. The leaves produce a substance that is mildly toxic to deer, so deer avoid it. In autumn, the shrub holds onto its leaves until late in the season, and it has great fall color. And in winter, interesting seed capsules remain on branches that have attractive grey-brown bark.

 Fall color is a mix of red, yellow, and orange

There is no nectar in the flowers of St. John’s Wort, so it’s not a stopping place for butterflies. However, caterpillars of several moth and butterfly species, including the lovely gray hairstreak butterfly, do use the leaves as a host plant. Pollen is the big attraction. The flowers have a huge number of stamens, all loaded with pollen, so bees of every size and description come to the party.

How many bumbles can you find on just 3 flowers? (Hint: there are 5!)

We never get tired of watching the action, and we can observe up close because the bees won’t spare a second even to notice nearby humans. They are fixated on pollen collection, as you can see in this slow-motion video:

Pollen collection

And what about that summer buzzin’? Turn your sound up and, technology permitting, you may hear the sound of a plant humming!

Summer buzzin’
THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.