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.


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!


Much Ado About Mulch

We are re-thinking mulch.

Gardeners are routinely advised to apply a 2 to 3-inch layer of wood chips or bark mulch around new plantings, and to mulch regularly thereafter. We are told that mulching maintains soil moisture, suppresses weeds, improves soil, and looks tidy. This advice has been given and followed for years without regard to plant type, soil conditions, or location.

Typical planting with bark mulch around widely-spaced plants

There is plenty of expert advice available about types of mulch and how to use them. For example, there is general agreement that color-enhanced mulch is not beneficial. And tree experts routinely warn against “mulch volcanos,” which can “girdle” a tree and kill it by holding excessive moisture around the trunk.

Color-treated mulch does not benefit plants, soil, or wildlife
Incorrect mulching actually damages trees and shrubs

Until recently, however, there has been little discussion about whether it is necessary, or wise, to mulch at all. Our reconsideration of mulching began with a startling statement by noted horticulturist (and garden philosopher), Roy Diblik:

“There is not a plant on earth that has evolved living in a pile of wood chips.”

Roy Diblik

In his excellent book, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, Roy Diblik observes that plants have widely differing needs. When we buy a new plant, at a minimum we want to know whether it prefers sun or shade, dry or wet soil. The answer depends upon the habitat where that plant evolved. Did it originate in shady moist forests with soil enriched by fallen leaves, or did it evolve surviving in hard-packed clay in open prairies? The one thing we know for sure, is that it did not evolve in a habitat with a 2 to 3-inch layer of man-made wood mulch.

So, a wiser practice may be to consider whether mulching is appropriate in a given situation. Mulching vegetable gardens with compost or light organic matter that can be tilled into beds makes sense. Mulching formal beds of annuals for aesthetic and maintenance reasons is understandable. Trees and shrubs planted in full sun in lawn may very well benefit from a proper application mulch, if only to protect them from lawnmowers.

On the other hand, trees and shrubs in a moist wooded area may suffer from mildew and pest damage with a similar application of man-made mulch. They are better off as they evolved – with groundcovers and woodland perennials. As seasons change and leaves fall and decay, these plants become natural mulch and enrich the soil.

Correct mulching can benefit trees and shrubs surrounded by lawn
Under-planting trees acts as natural mulch, contributing to soil health and wildlife

Contrary to traditional advice, applying a layer of wood mulch when planting perennials (the flowering plants we hope will return every year) may be counter-productive. First, mulch can hold excess moisture, and actually reflect heat, causing plants to die.

Second, heavy mulch prevents perennials from growing naturally. Perennials grow by expanding from the base of the plant, or by sending out shoots that run below or on top of the soil and then reach up for light. Many perennials form seeds after flowering and drop their seeds on open soil to begin new plants. A thick layer of wood mulch defeats both processes. If plants can’t grow and reproduce, they eventually fade away.

Mulching perennials prevents natural growth

But if we don’t mulch, what about weeds? A good strategy is to plant perennials densely enough that within a season or two the desired plants occupy all the available space, making it difficult for weeds to establish. That is the approach we used in the Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center. (For a description of that process, click here)

New Pollinator Garden densely planted, without mulch
Pollinator Garden in its second season, not much room for weeds

Weeding and watering are important in the first season or two until the perennials begin to fill in. As plants expand naturally, and even seed themselves into open areas, weeds become less problematic. If it is available, leaf mulch is a good alternative to wood chips or shredded bark. Leaves break down much more quickly, and do not inhibit the natural growth habits of perennials.

Open soil in new plantings may be covered with leaf mulch, chopped leaves, or even whole leaves until new plants fill in

In the absence of man-made mulch, nature may offer some wonderful surprises. Not all of the plants that appear on open soil are “weeds.” We have seen “volunteer” native perennials return to areas that were previously mulched. Self-seeding perennials, like the wandering pink coneflower in the opening photo, surprise us by popping up in new spots. And native bees find open soil for their seasonal nests where we stopped mulching.

Native trout lily appeared under trees when we stopped mulching!
Native columbine surprises us in new spots every year
Ground nesting bees found this open spot!

The important thing is to recognize that plants are not all the same, and the best approach to gardening is to be thoughtful about their differences. By understanding what they need, and allowing them to live as they were meant to, we open our minds – and our gardens – to nature and its surprises.


How Sweet It Is!

Itea virginica is one of our most beautiful and versatile native shrubs. Its romantic common name, “Virginia Sweetspire,” is a good one, because this shrub is a sweet addition to the landscape year-round.

Itea virginica or “Virginia Sweetspire” shrub 

Itea (pronounced eye-tee-uh) grows in a loose mounding form, reaching 4-5 feet tall and wide in a few years, with gently arching branches. In mid-June, after most trees and shrubs have finished blooming, Itea is just starting its summer show. Spikes of white flowers 4 to 6 inches long cover the shrub, arching away from the deep-green leaves on long stems. 

Itea starts blooming in mid-June
The flowers open gradually

The star-shaped flowers begin opening from the stem to the tip, and last several weeks. And they are sweet! The elegant fragrance is not over-powering, but definitely carries in sultry June air. The flowers are loaded with nectar and butterflies flock to them. When the flowers fade, birds will feast on the seeds that remain all winter.

Itea’s fragrant flowers justify the name “Sweetspire”

Itea is native to swampy meadows and wet woodlands from New Jersey to Florida, and west as far as southern Illinois, but it does very well in more northern gardens. It can thrive in full sun or part shade, and is surprisingly drought tolerant given its swampy origins. It is winter hardy in Zones 5-9, and is not attractive to deer or rabbits. 

Throughout the summer, the foliage remains fresh and glossy, so Itea looks great in full sun as a hedge or foundation plant. But because of its shade tolerance, it can even replace pachysandra, vinca, or ivy under trees.

Itea is part of our full-sun foundation planting at the Nature Center’s Manor House
Itea in part shade under a Redbud tree at the Nature Center

And have we mentioned fall color? Itea is known for its gorgeous fall foliage, turning various shades of red, orange, and purple while holding onto its leaves until snowfall. Cultivars called “Henry’s Garnet” and “Merlot” are specifically marketed for their brilliance in the fall landscape. Fall color is best in full sun, but it’s still impressive in part shade. We frequently recommend Itea as a native alternative to invasive burning bush.

The same Itea planting in mid-November
All the fall colors

So, Itea is carefree, a hedge or foundation plant, an under-tree plant, has showy and fragrant flowers, offers nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds, grows in sun or shade, and has fabulous fall color – we think that’s pretty sweet!


Baptisia: It Will Return!

“Perennials” are plants that come back every year… at least in theory. In reality, some perennials are short-lived and only come back for a few years. Others may come back every year, but not necessarily where you planted them – they pop up in other places, or dramatically expand their territory. Some perennials need to be divided (split at the roots) to stay vigorous, or they will languish and stop blooming.

Baptisia (“Wild Indigo” or “False Indigo”), on the other hand, is truly perennial. There are documented cases of gardens, abandoned and neglected for over 30 years, where the only remaining original plant was Baptisia – still growing right where it was first planted, and still blooming.

Baptisia australis (Blue Wild Indigo) in spring

Baptisia is as beautiful as it is durable. It sends up vertical stalks loaded with flowers in May and June. All summer long, it acts like a shrub, 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, with blue-green foliage that remains fresh even in the hottest weather. In the fall, it produces attractive pods that add seasonal interest. The whole plant dies back to the ground after a few hard frosts, remaining unharmed by snow mounds or road salt throughout the winter. In spring, this reliable perennial definitely returns.

Baptisia australis flower

Baptisia evolved growing in open meadows and prairies. It is in the legume family, which explains the sweet-pea shape of the flowers. Like other legumes, Baptisia is nitrogen-fixing. Essentially, the plant manufactures its own nitrogen fertilizer, so it can live in very poor soil. Baptisia roots can extend 7 feet deep, even into hard-packed prairie, so it is drought tolerant.

Though Baptisia is easy to find in plant nurseries, you may be inclined to give it a pass when you first see it. It looks a bit like purple asparagus coming up in early spring. Because of its deep roots, nurseries can offer only very young plants, but a small plant will fill out dramatically after two or three years in the ground.

A one-year old Baptisia australis in the Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center

Baptisia is very low maintenance. It never needs dividing. In fact, once its deep roots are established, it really should not be moved or divided. The best bet is to buy container plants and give them enough room to mature undisturbed. Note, however, that the one non-negotiable for Baptisia is sun – 8 to 10 hours a day. Even very long-established plants will begin to fade if they become shaded by trees and shrubs. So, plan ahead when deciding where to site Baptisia.

A 15-year-old stand of Baptisia plants in mid-June

There is a lot to choose from in the Baptisia family these days – at least 3 garden-worthy species, plus hybrids and cultivars. Here are a few favorites:

Baptisia australis, or Wild Blue Indigo, is a species native to New York and always our first choice. Its natural habitat varies from moist woodland edges to open prairie. Its original native range extends south as far as Georgia and west from Nebraska to Texas. It likes our acidic soil, and is hardy in Zones 4-9. It is not generally attractive to deer, and it is the host plant for the Wild Indigo Duskywing butterfly.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow Wild Indigo) is not native to New York, but is native farther west and south from Missouri and Oklahoma to Texas. Baptisia alba (White Wild Indigo) is native in the Southeast from Virginia to Florida. Both of these Baptisia species are winter hardy to Zone 5, and do well in New York gardens.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow Wild Indigo)
Baptisia alba (White Wild Indigo)

Interestingly, these three Baptisia species have yielded natural hybrids resulting in some very beautiful flower color variations. Hybrids called ‘Purple Smoke’ and ‘Twilight Prairie Blues’ are often available and seem to perform as well as the species.

Hybrid Baptisia ‘Twilight Prairie Blues’

New cultivars have been developed by growers and are sold under various names such as ‘Lemon Meringue,’ ‘Dutch Chocolate,’ and ‘Cherries Jubilee.’ Whether these cultivars provide the same benefits to wildlife as the species is unknown.

So, if you want a true perennial that will come back every year, never need dividing, never need fertilizing, and will be beautiful for many years to come, try Baptisia!

Wild Yellow and Wild Blue Baptisia in the garden