Around the Garden

Sightings & notes from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

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Busy Spring

Now that spring has finally sprung here in the NC Piedmont, we are bracing ourselves for pollen season. Of course, some pollination has already occurred: trout lilies started blooming a couple of weeks ago. And we are seeing the thin silvery samaras (seeds) of elm trees in late-afternoon back-lighting.

A few weeks ago, while it still felt very winterish, the seeds of sycamore trees were abundant—especially in the cracks of the porous pavers of the loading dock area beside our Education Center. 

Director Peter White reminded us that these seeds come from last year's flowering season: sycamore hangs onto its seed “balls” through the winter, finally dropping and busting them open in the very early spring so that they can find homes fairly close to the parent tree.  Being very light seeds, they could be carried very far if allowed to drop early in our generally wet winters. In fact, you will see, when you visit, that there is a fabulous crop of new sycamores coming up in the vicinity of an especially prominent sycamore in this area of the Garden.

Yellow lady slipper photo by Tom Earnhardt.

This blog will be on hiatus for a time. I have been the primary contributor and am retiring from NCBG next week! Others will be along this summer to carry on.  In the meantime, do enjoy your garde—and our Garden—in the glory of spring.

—Laura Cotterman

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Winter Orchids

We are bouncing back and forth between winter and spring this week. But since it is still officially winter, we share here a short essay about “winter orchids” by the president of the Botanical Garden Foundation, Tom Earnhardt, which appears in our current newsletter.

Many North Carolinians, including me, grew up thinking of orchids as tropical flowers found only in hothouses. They were the big purple flowers given for proms and special occasions. I was in college when it first registered that some of the wildflowers I had encountered in the North Carolina mountains—pink and yellow lady slippers, ladies tresses, and even rattlesnake plantain—are in fact orchids. I have now come to appreciate that North Carolina is a temperate hotspot for orchids (plants in the family Orchidaceae), with some 60 species known from the mountains to the coast. During the coldest winter months, however, only one native orchid stands out.

 I do a lot of walking on Piedmont trails during the winter. In old deciduous forests, especially near creeks (for instance, on the Garden’s Piedmont Nature Trails), I see the leaves of Tipularia discolor, the crane-fly orchid. From November through February, these shiny, crinkly leaves—green on top and reddish purple underneath—poke through thick layers of fallen oak and hickory leaves. With no leaves on hardwood trees to block the sunlight, this orchid does its “photosynthesis thing” throughout the winter. Crane-fly orchid leaves seem totally immune to freezing temperatures and were not even fazed by the single-digits of this January. Garden Director Peter White has informed me that Tipularia is one of our few “backwards” plants, collecting sunlight when other plants don’t compete.

In spring, those crane-fly orchid leaves wither and disappear. Then, from late July through August, tiny orchid flowers—greenish with a hint of purple—appear on slender stems in the same place the leaves sprouted in winter. The flowering stem, about the diameter of a pencil lead and 12 to 18 inches tall, is pretty inconspicuous but worth finding. Locate crane-fly orchid leaves in winter, and you will find the delicate flowers in late summer. This is my kind of orchid!             —Tom Earnhardt

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Meet the 2014 Wildflower of the Year

Earlier this month we announced the choice of the 2014 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year on our website. Hoary skullcap (Scutellaria incana var. punctata) is a native perennial in the mint family with unusual-shaped violet-blue to lavender flowers. A free brochure describing hoary skullcap and including seeds and growing instructions will be available from the Garden in early February. (We should also mention: t-shirts and tote bags bearing a gorgeous botanical illustration of the wildflower can be purchased at our Garden Shop!)

Bees love hoary skullcap (photo by Laura Cotterman)

Like other members of the mint family, horary skullcap has aromatic leaves. “But our favorite thing about this species is its long bloom period,” says Heather Summer, seed program coordinator at the Botanical Garden.  “It will provide plenty of cooling color in your garden throughout the heat of summer and into early fall.”  Although the flowers of hoary skullcap are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, other insect visitors include butterflies, bee flies, and wasps.  The common name “skullcap” comes from the resemblance of part of the flower to a miniature helmet or cap.

Though hoary skullcap is endemic to the southern Appalachians from West Virginia south to northern Georgia, it thrives in a range of soil types and light levels.  At the North Carolina Botanical Garden it is spectacular in the sunny, open landscapes surrounding the Education Center.  And while no plant is entirely “deer-proof,” hoary skullcap is generally thought to be fairly deer and rabbit resistant because of the reportedly bitter-tasting foliage. 

There can be white as well as purple forms of hoary skullcap (photo by Chris Liloia)

The Wildflower of the Year program is a joint effort between the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of North Carolina to promote the use of native plants in the home garden. Each year since 1982, a showy native perennial has been chosen and seeds of that wildflower are distributed to interested gardeners. To view a list of the past thirty-three years of the North Carolina Wildflower of the Year, visit the Garden’s website:

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What to See in Winter

Our fall asters, the grasses, the sunflowers, and goldenrods have long since gone dormant –some have disappeared entirely, some keep their place in the garden holding seeds, providing perches, and giving us something to look at while we remember last summer. The colors of the garden have changed. Not much purple, and green has taken a backseat. The landscape is dominated by grays and browns, warm gold, and russet. Instead of marveling at glorious white umbrella magnolia flowers we now take the time to notice their graceful buds and the sparse architecture of their reaching trunks and branches.

The few leaves that cling to the sparkleberry bushes suddenly seem dramatic in their shades of wine red. The sun lights the soft white seeds of the split beard bluestem as the wind makes the grasses sway and rustles the oak leaves that just won’t let go.

While the earliest of spring bloomers like hairy wood-rush and sharp lobed liverleaf are biding their time, waiting for the days to get just a little bit longer, it’s a peaceful time for a walk in the garden.

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Discovering the Campus-to-Garden Trail

We invite you—if you are here in Chapel Hill—to experience the Campus-to-Garden Trail through our Coker Pinetum. What, you might ask, is the Coker Pinetum? A pinetum, by definition, is a collection of pines or conifers that is used for their scientific study. This particular pinetum came to the Botanical Garden as a deeded gift from the estate of UNC botany professor William C. Coker, who used it for teaching and as a living laboratory. It is a surprisingly hidden 25 wooded acres sandwiched between Manning Drive and Laurel Hill Road.

Hardwoods now dominate this tract, but some of the shortleaf pines are original campus trees and retain the resin-tapping scars known as “cat-faces.” According to the 1946 deed, the described property shall be used “only for a Botanical Garden and Park area.” Thus, the Pinetum was part of the larger plan of Professor Coker, and his student Henry R. Totten, for our now blossoming botanical garden.   

"Cat faces" on turpentine trees, northern Florida, 1936. Source: Farm Security Administration (Wikipedia)

The most enduring feature of the Pinetum is Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek (so named by Coker), which tumbles downhill through the Pinetum, passes unnoticed beneath the 15/501-54 bypass near Manning Drive, and courses through ourPiedmont Nature Tails to its confluence with Morgan Creek.

Two trails diverge in the wooded Pinetum: the OWASA easement, which is very pleasant and can accommodate people and mountain bikes, and the nature trail, which is the one less traveled. The easement is maintained by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, and the nature trail is cared for by Garden staff and a handful of diligent Green Dragon Volunteers. These individuals, along with all of our other volunteers, epitomize volunteerism and are in many ways the Garden’s backbone. The Pinetum nature trail has also benefited from three separate Eagle Scout projects that created a beautiful bridge, benches, and many trail improvements.

Green Dragon volunteers Marcella Grendler, Chris McKeever, Eleanor Rutledge, and Larry Howard at the Coker Arboretum

The prime directive of all Green Dragons is invasive plant removal. Beginning in about 1999, Marcella Grendler decided that she was fed up with the Chinese privet understory and set forth on a removal campaign. Since then, a remarkable transformation has befallen the Pinetum, where native plants now thrive.

Access to the Pinetum at the Garden end is at the terminus of Fern Lane for the OWASA trail; the nature trail begins across from the Fern Ln/Iris Ln intersection. Access to the campus end of both trails is at the bottom of the Boshamer Stadium parking lot drive off of Ridge Road. Sstart your walk on campus at the Coker Arboretum/Battle Park using the following directions:

• From Coker Arboretum, take a short sidewalk-stroll east to Forest Theatre and on to the Battle Park trails, ultimately taking the Deer Track Trail to the Sisters’ Corner on Gimghoul Rd.

• Follow the sidewalk to Country Club Rd.; take a left and follow Country Club across Raleigh Rd. to Ridge Rd.

• Take Ridge Rd. to the Boshamer Stadium parking lot and find the trailhead to either the OWASA trail or Nature Trail

• Both trails end on Fern Ln., which you must follow to the pedestrian crossing at Old Mason Farm Rd., and then over to the Botanical Garden entrance.  

So … I invite you to slow down, rediscover Chapel Hill with your feet, practice orienteering, experience urban natural areas, listen to Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek, carefully cross a busy highway, and enjoy what’s happening at the Garden proper! If you’re not tuckered-out, trace your way back up through the Pinetum on the trail you didn’t take down.

               —Johnny Randall, NCBG Director of Conservation Programs