Around the Garden

Sightings & notes from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

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The Live Oak Lawn

ARBlog…from Coker Arboretum

Should you find yourself in the Northeast corner of the Arboretum, across from the back of Spencer Dorm, next to the bus stop, you’ll find one of the original entrances to the Arb. There is a long straight brick walkway that runs the length of the garden, connecting Raleigh Street to the East side of the Morehead Planetarium. This is one of two paved walks in the Arboretum. It’s called the Senior’s Walk, as that was the path taken by graduating UNC seniors on their way from housing to Commencement. The top of the walk at Raleigh Street branches off into the Arboretum, and as you proceed downslope, you’ll pass alongside two lovely oaks in the area to your left.

This area we call the Live Oak Lawn, as it is home to our two live oak trees (Quercus virginiana). All of our lawns have names, in fact, I hope to get to them all in this blog. The Southeast is no stranger to oaks; Weakley lists 42 species in the 2012 draft of his Flora of the Southern & Mid-Atlantic States. They are all members of the beech family (Fagaceae) along with the beeches and the chestnuts. The live oak is a Southeastern Coastal Plain endemic (meaning its normal range is restricted to a certain geographical region), found from Virginia down to Florida and over to Texas. (It’s the state tree of Georgia, in case you get that question in your next trivia night outing.)

Q. virginiana is notable for being an evergreen, old leaves do not exit until spring. The acorns are up to an inch long and capped 1/3 of the way down. The new leaves are bright green, maturing to a darker shade. They are long-lived, ours should be around for the 400th anniversary of UNC! I especially appreciate the subtle garden and lawn that form the carpet and frame for these oaks. We have removed all of the mondo grass from this area and replaced it with small sedges (maybe Carex rubra, not sure) which are thriving. There are various witch-grasses (Dicanthelium spp.) and Elephant’s foot (Elepahntopus tomentosus) growing right up to the base of the trunk. Along the border you’ll find a handful of cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor, sorry—no pictures of those, too small!) and a nice patch of white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata, just starting to bloom). And of course there will be spider lilies this fall (Lycoris radiata).

These two trees are overlooked, in my opinion, as folks race to points A, B & C. The overhead architecture of these plants is worth an extra 15 seconds pause. Next time you cut through, stop and pay a visit! Additional pictures can always be found on Instagram, just search #cokerarboretum. You may also consider following my Twitter feed: @cokerarboretum. 

- Geoffrey Neal, Assistant Curator, Coker Arboretum                               


Dirr, Michael A. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. 5th Ed. 1998. Stipes Publishing L.L.C. Champaign, IL. p. 838.

Weakley, A.S. Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States. Working Draft of 30 November 2012. University of North Carolina Herbarium (NCU). North Carolina Botanical Garden. UNC Chapel Hill. p. 578

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Are you sure Dr. Seuss didn’t name this plant?

ARBlog…from Coker Arboretum

I know, it’s my third entry and I’ve yet to talk about trees. This is supposed to be a blog from the Coker Arboretum, right? Well, I promise, I will, soon. There’s just so much other stuff going on right now, I do not want you all to miss out. For example, I’ve been watching this plant for the past several weeks, waiting for flowers. Finally they’ve arrived and the time spent stepping carefully in some areas to avoid the ground-hugging foliage has found its reward.

Elephantopus tomentosus goes by more than one common name. A look at the Encyclopedia of Life website lists tobaccoweed as the preferred common name. I’m more partial to the names listed in Flora of Virginia: hairy elephant’s-foot and devil’s grandmother. Come on, those are so much cooler than tobaccoweed (though I would be hard pressed to say which of the three suggests the strongest malodor…). For an entertaining introduction into the genealogy of The Trickster, I refer the avid reader to the article cited below (“The Devil’s Grandmother”). I’m open to theories as to why this lovely little plant got saddled with such a curious common name.

In talking about this plant, I find myself inclined to speak its botanical rather than common name simply because it’s more fun to say. Names that rhyme are always easier, don’t you think? And since we are forbidden, nomenclature-wise, to employ the same specific epithet as genus name (e.g. Gorilla gorilla, the Western gorilla, very easy to remember), a rhyming pair certainly makes remembering that much simpler. There are three species found in the Southeast, our hairy-stemmed friend, as well as E. nudatus (smaller flowers, no leaves along the stems) and E. carolinianus (well-developed stem leaves). The last is found a bit further north, otherwise these members of the aster family enjoy nearly identical ranges.

The flowers of E.tomentosus are about 2 cm across, nested in a little mitt of dark green leaves, and a delightful shade of purple. They open in strong light. The plant will grow in most any condition, in the Arboretum we see them in the shade of a mature cherry tree as well as the afternoon sun of the garden next to the downed swamp white oak. In fact, the sunny cohort are 50 cm + tall whilst the shady group have stayed in the 20 cm range. The stems have a nicely contrasting purplish cast. The basal leaves are flat flat flat against the ground and remain to frost.

This is one of the first summer flowering perennials I direct interns to when we look at identifying plants using keys. The flowers do not hold for long once cut, but the plant parts are readily identifiable and it makes a nice change from all the black-eyed Susans staring up at us. Take a look, you may see one or two along the road even now; I’ve seen them in my neighborhood, poking up through the Microstegium[NG1] . If you’re in the Arboretum, you’ll not miss them as they are cheerfully clumped in a number of spaces.


- Geoffrey Neal, Assistant Curator, Coker Arboretum                               


Weakley, A.S., Ludwig, J.C.,Townsend, J.F. Flora of Virginia. Ed. B. Crowder. 2012. Botanical Research Institute of Texas Press, Fort Worth. p. 316.

“Taxonomic Information for Tobaccoweed (Elephantopus tomentosus) – Biological Classification & Names – Encyclopedia of Life”, Web. 12 August 2012

Chamberlain, Isabel Cushman (1900). "The Devil’s Grandmother". Journal of American folklore (Worchester, Mass.: American Folklore Society) 13: pp. 278–280.

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Button, button…who’s got the button?

ARBlog…from the Coker Arboretum

I’m sitting here at the Arboretum, munching on some really good NC watermelon and having my second cup of really good non-NC coffee, wondering why I chose to blog about buttonweed. I suppose it’s because I’ve been noticing this plant in one of our lawn areas, it’s brightly variegated yellow leaves standing out against the regular grass green, especially after a good mowing. I especially like the combination this patch presents so near to our golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis).

There are two species of Diodia listed in the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas and in the more recent Flora of Virginia: D. teres and D. virginiana. The latter is our Virginia buttonweed, found from Connecticut down to Florida and over to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The other is called common buttonweed or poorjoe and has a greater range, extending over to California and up into Michigan and Wisconsin. The plant itself stays rather small, reclining as it grows from a central rootstock. The very small, white, four-parted flowers are borne in the leaf axils and are around in summer. It is a member of the madder family, Rubiaceae, close kin to the lovely - and much more noticeable - buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

A quick search within the UNC libraries catalog and Google Scholar gave up a wealth of articles about how to kill this plant. Nothing about how cool it would be to have it as part of a “natural” lawn. The plants we see in our grassy areas have adapted to the weekly invasion of the riding mower and stay below that magic 3” threshold. It’s a walkable plant: no prickles, no thorns, nothing sticky to bother the unclothed foot seeking cool dew on an August morn. But I digress.

Regarding the unfortunate suffix (-weed) attached to the common name, I believe this plant could be a pest if found in the wrong place. The same is correctly said about most any plant, native or non. Curiously, buttonweed was reported for the first time in Taiwan in 1982, demonstrating that we are not the only place that is prone to invasion. I admit, we did pull a bunch up in the Arboretum just today where it was crowding in with some irises and beardtongue. I felt bad about that. 

Feel free to have a walk about the gardens, look for the buttonweed, appreciate the less spectacular flowers. And of course, please look for our Twitter feed (@cokerarboretum) or our Instagram pictures (#ncbg and #cokerarboretum) for a quick check on what’s looking great in the Arboretum.

- Geoffrey Neal, Assistant Curator, Coker Arboretum


Weakley, A.S., Ludwig, J.C.,Townsend, J.F. Flora of Virginia. Ed. B. Crowder. 2012. Botanical Research Institute of Texas Press, Fort Worth. p. 902.

Radford, A.E., Ahles, H.E., Bell, C.R., Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. 1968. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 979.

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Well, yes…I suppose I was surprised

ARBlog…from the Coker Arboretum

In her book, Beautiful at All Seasons, the late Elizabeth Lawrence wrote that the “reason that surprise lilies are so little known is that their specific name, squamigera, is so long and so ugly.” I rarely laugh out loud when reading about bulbs, indeed, I rarely laugh at all when reading about gardening – it’s such serious stuff, after all. That said, that line brought up a chuckle.

Squamigera means scaly, referring to the minute scales in the throat of each flower. Minute is the word, with a 10X lens I can just make them out. All together, they give the petals a sparkle. Lycoris happens to be the pseudonym of one Volumnia Cytheris, a freed slave, possibly Greek, who was a pantomime and “companion” to some fairly well known 1st Century B.C.E. Romans, including Brutus (think Julius Caesar) and Marcus Antonius (think Cleopatra).

These impressive plants have popped up in at least four different places within the Arboretum recently. They have been blooming for a couple of weeks and, if you’ve not been by for a peek, you’re running out of time. Today was particularly nice in the morning with the sun backlighting the clear pink trumpet-like flowers in our stepping-stone garden near the Arbor.

Along with the 3’ tall surprise lilies you may spot a couple of smaller lilies. They are a rusty orange in color and are about a foot tall. These are Lycoris sanguinea. Ours are not the scarlet color Ms. Lawrence describes, but stand out quite well nonetheless. This is especially true for the one that opened under a tumble of azaleas down at the bottom of the President’s Walk.

If you are not able to catch this summer show in person, please look for our Twitter feed (@cokerarboretum) or our Instagram pictures (#ncbg and #cokerarboretum) for a quick check on what’s looking great in the Arboretum.

- Geoffrey Neal, Assistant Curator, Coker Arboretum


"Lycoris." Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Ed. Edward I. Bleiberg, et al. Vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome 1200 B.C.E.-476 C.E. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 377-378. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 30 July 2014.

Lawrence, Elizabeth. Beautiful at All Seasons, Southern Gardening and Beyond with Elizabeth Lawrence. Ed. Ann L. Armstrong & Lindie Wilson. 2007. Duke University Press.

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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