Around the Garden

Sightings & notes from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

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Dream Wildflowers

Last Friday we had a light dusting of snow.  My perspective always seems to be enlivened by the way snow accentuates shapes and textures. With the see-sawing temperatures that now characterize winter in central North Carolina, we never know whether we will see any of the white stuff in a winter, nor how much will fall in any one event.

Most gardeners take some time in January to dream about and plan their gardening activities for the spring.  So I thought I’d offer some fodder for your dreams: the 2013 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year!  The Wildflower of the Year project—a joint effort of the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the Garden Club of North Carolina, Inc.—has been highlighting and promoting a different wildflower each year since 1982.

Our Curator of Habitat Gardens Chris Liloia wrote the following profile of New Jersey-tea, the 2013 NC Wildflower of the Year …

The 2013 North Carolina Wildflower of the Year is not a wildflower at all! New Jersey-tea (Ceanothus americanus) is actually a small deciduous shrub, but we’ll bend the rules a little for such a great plant. New Jersey-tea can grow to three feet in the garden and is often smaller in the dry rocky sites it favors in the wild. Though its size and fine texture might let it pass for a wildflower when in bloom, this shrub has multi-season interest. In spring it produces abundant white flowers borne in terminal clusters reminiscent of lilacs. Fall brightens its leaves with warm bronzy shades. When the leaves fade they drop to reveal delicate yellow-green twigs which are attractive through the winter.

Ceanothus americanus is one of a few east coast representatives of this primarily western genus. It can be found throughout eastern North America and grows from the mountains to the coast in North Carolina. Thick deep roots allow it to survive drought and dry sites. In the wild it grows in open spots on sandy or rocky soils and on steep slopes, so be sure to give it similar growing conditions. This plant is a survivor, even fire won’t bother it much, but it won’t stand for constantly wet or poorly drained soils. Provide plenty of sun and good drainage and New Jersey-tea will take care of the rest.


The flowers are full of nectar and attract all kinds of interesting pollinators including native bees and butterflies. It is the host plant for the larval stage of spring and summer azures and mottled duskywing butterflies. This plant also has a long history of human use. A number of Native American tribes are reported to have used various parts of New Jersey-tea for medicinal purposes in addition to using the dense roots as a portable fuel source. Colonists used the leaves as a tea substitute during the American Revolution, though they lack caffeine!

New Jersey-tea has lots of stellar qualities that make it work well in gardens or less formal landscapes. Take advantage of its drought tolerance and deep roots to stabilize a steep slope. Grow it with eastern silvery aster and woodland phlox for a colorful easygoing garden display. Incorporate it into a meadow planting or butterfly garden. It won’t sucker or spread so its compact size and simple elegance make it well suited for more formal landscapes too. Masses or rows of New Jersey-tea help draw attention to its best features. We hope you’ll find the perfect spot to grow this great plant.

To receive a brochure and seeds of the current North Carolina Wildflower of the Year (available in mid- to late-February), send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to:  2013 NCWFOY, North Carolina Botanical Garden, Campus Box 3375, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3375. To see what past years’ Wildflowers of the Year, visit our website.

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Ginko Trees

Residents of Chapel Hill recently witnessed the Ginko trees in town and on campus turning gold. Carol Ann McCormick, UNC Herbarium assistant curator, wrote the following essay for the Carrboro Citizen a few weeks earlier. Although the Citizen has ceased publication, you can read “Flora” articles that were published by that good paper in their web archives. Thanks to Robert Dickson, publisher, for allowing us to reprint Ms. McCormick’s essay here.

10 Things I Love About Ginko Trees by Carol Ann McCormick

1. They’re old—really old. The earliest gingko trees were found in the Middle Jurassic (180 million years ago), and the seeds were probably dispersed by carrion-eating dinosaurs. Since the Jurassic there have been about a dozen species, but only Ginkgo biloba is alive today, and since we are sadly lacking in dinosaurs, it now depends on humans for dispersal.

Ginkgo trees have fantastic autumn foliage. Photo by Peter Del Tredici

2. Ginkgo biloba is more closely related to pines than to maples and oaks. (For botany wonks, it is a gymnosperm in its own division, Ginkgophyta.) An individual tree is either male or female and depends on the wind, not insects, for pollination.

3. An individual tree can live 1,500 years! Ginkgo biloba is native to China and the oldest trees are found growing near temples. Monks did not ascribe any religious significance to the trees, but appreciated them for their longevity, beautiful leaves, and edible nuts.

Ginkgo fruit and green leaves. Photo by Laura Cotterman

4. Ginkgo seeds have a squishy outside (“sarcotesta” for those studying for the SAT) containing hexanoic and butanoic acids, so they smell like rotten flesh or vomit (remember the carrion-eating dinosaurs in 1?). However, the interior “nut” is not stinky and is used in Asian cuisine. Margo MacIntyre, curator of the Coker Arboretum, reports that the seeds are avidly harvested by visitors. (She also asks that you not leave a pile of sarcotesta right by the bench where other people want to sit and enjoy the ginkgo foliage.)

Ginkgo adiantoides fossil. Photo by Patricia Gensel

5. Ginkgo trees have beautiful leaves—simple and elegant in form, leathery in texture. Ginkgo adiantoides, an extinct species native to North America, had leaves remarkably similar to Ginkgo biloba.

6. Ginkgo trees are remarkably resistant to disease and tolerant of air pollution, so they are an excellent choice for urban environments. Because of the aforementioned malodorous fruit, usually only male ginkgos are planted.

7. Despite cultivation for 200-plus years in America, there is scant evidence of gingko naturalizing and becoming a weed.

Golden ginkgo. Photo by Peter Del Tredici

8. Ginkgo trees have fantastic autumn foliage. In mid-October an entire tree will go from green to gold in a day or two. In mid-November, the tree will go from all gold to bare in just a day or two.

9. The University of New Hampshire has annual contests to Pick the Day the Ginkgo Leaves Fall (winner gets pizza) and Catch a Ginkgo Leaf (winners get good luck for the year). “They’re actually quite difficult to catch,” says UNH student Mary Dellenbaugh. “Because the leaves are fan-shaped, their falling pattern is very erratic. As soon as you think you have it in your hand, it darts out of reach.”

10. Go find a ginkgo! There are two mature trees (one male, one female) along the north edge of the lawn in Coker Arboretum on the UNC campus. Between Hanes Art Center and Kenan Music Hall there is a new allé of 20 trees, and UNC Forester Tom Bythell promises, “In a decade when these trees are mature, this will be the place to be when the leaves turn gold.”

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Hurrah for Seeds!

I have been thinking about seeds again.  It’s no wonder.  From the dense, brown persimmon seeds embedded in fox scat on the trail, to the delicate fluffy seeds on fall asters that are nearly finished blooming (goldfinches eating avidly therein), seeds are everywhere.  Acorns on the ground, in abundance this year, and hickory nuts chewed open by squirrels—seeds are all around us!

Staff of North Carolina Botanical Garden collect seeds from March (spring ephemeral wildflowers) through at least November (fall-blooming asters).  There is also some wild-collecting of seed that goes on, primarily from our natural areas such as Mason Farm Biological Reserve.  But the bulk of the seeds used to propagate plants for our Daily Plant Sale and Annual Fall Plant Sale are collected right here on Garden grounds.  These seeds also fill requests for wildflower seed sent in by members.  Members of the Botanical Garden Foundation (our nonprofit support group, which you join when you become a “member of the Garden”) receive our Seed List in the mail each year in their February newsletter.  The selection varies, but typically, 45 to 50 different species of native wildflowers are offered.  Members may choose 8 different ones for free and order additional packets for a small price.

Much effort and care go into the choosing, cleaning, processing, and packaging of seeds for our seed list.  Our new “seed master” is Heather Summer, who follows in the footsteps of JC Poythress (she also worked with our seed program four years ago, before JC came to us).  This week Heather told me that seed collecting has been a little different this year:  more than usual, she finds that certain species or individual plants have produced seed that is clearly not viable (flattened, “empty,” soft seeds…).  We can only speculate on why this is—weather conditions off, affecting native pollinators?  There also seems to have been more than the usual gobbling up of seed by birds, especially among the composites.

Heather and Sally Heiney supervise a group of faithful volunteers who come to our “seed room” in the Totten Center every Wednesday morning to clean and sort seed.  These folks also do much of the work of measuring tiny spoonfuls of seed into small glassine envelopes, which they must seal close and label. We truly couldn’t manage our successful seed program without these wonderful volunteers.  Offering seeds of native plants, as well as potted plants propagated from that seed, to gardeners all over the Southeast is one aspect of the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s “Conservation through Propagation” approach:  our goal continues to be to encourage the use of native plants in the landscape and to discourage removal of plants from natural areas.

Many years ago, a friend made me a persimmon seed necklace. What a job that must have been, to drill a hole through each flat, hard chocolate-brown seed—all 120 of them.  The necklace has stood the test of time, not decomposing or changing in any way.  Hurrah for seeds!

—Laura Cotterman

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Poetry of Fall

We were greeted by sunshine this morning—the first in 4 or 5 days.  Unlike our neighbors to the north, and on our own state’s coast, we experienced a minor lashing from Hurricane Sandy.  Mostly it was the wind, and with that we saw much of our peak fall color blow away.  Still, the bronzing of beeches and the gold, orange, red of many of our deciduous trees will continue to delight for a few more days.

Because he says it so well, I’ll quote from one of Wendell Berry's poems:

The woods is shining this morning.

Red, gold and green, the leaves

lie on the ground, or fall,

or hang full of light in the air still.

Perfect in its rise and in its fall, it takes

the place it has been coming to forever.

It has not hastened here, or lagged.

See how surely it has sought itself,

its roots passing lordly through the earth.

See how without confusion it is

all that it is, …

—Laura Cotterman (thank you to Peter White for the photo)

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Ponder the Post Oak

It is hard for us not to see time through the lens of our species. Humans have lifespans measured in decades, at most about a century.  Most other organisms with which we form close relationships have lifespans shorter than we do.  We have pets which live a decade or two.  We plant a vegetable garden, which dies in the fall and is replanted in the spring.  Perhaps we have a psychological vanity that we are nearly immortal, presiding godlike over our dependent animals and plants, watching their beginnings and ends. 

But we live our lives around organisms that live much longer than we do, that may be almost unchanged from the time of our birth to the time of our death, that stolidly oversaw events that we might consider impossibly long ago (a band of Native Americans moving along a trading path, the American Revolution, the founding of the University of North Carolina, the marriage of our great-great-great grandparents, the Civil War) and may see the 24th century.  Most trees have life spans of centuries, often many centuries, and while in the eastern Piedmont we lack the “Methusaleh trees” of other regions (bald-cypresses, redwoods, sequoias, bristlecone pines, with lifespans of millenia), we still live among trees that far outlast us.

Undoubtedly the most famous of old trees in Carrboro / Chapel Hill is the Davie Poplar on the campus of the University of North Carolina, already a notable individual in 1792 and considered to be at least 300 years old.  Carolina grad though I am (’78), I can’t say that the Davie is one of my favorite old trees around town, nor is it likely the oldest.  Size is a misleading indicator of age, and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) like the Davie are fast-growing, light- and soft-wooded trees: they bulk up fast, especially if pampered by ground crews and fed a rich diet of nutrients and groundwater!

Instead, consider our Post Oaks (Quercus stellata), common trees of the high, dry, granite monadnock of Chapel Hill.  Sometimes called “iron oak,” this species is a survivor, tolerant of drought and fire and nutrient starvation.  It grows slowly, often adding less than 1/16 of an inch of diameter in a year, especially when growing on a dry granite hilltop in acidic soils.  Growing as little as half an inch a decade, six inches a century, Post Oak develops wood that is hard, tough, and the heaviest wood in North America. 

Here in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, we have many old, open-grown Post Oaks scattered around town, as do many other parts of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina and adjacent states.  Look around and find an old Post Oak:  ponder its age and characterful individuality, with medium gray bark, characteristic cross-shaped leaves, and gnarled spreading limbs.  It has withstood drought, lightning strikes, and the ground fires set by lightning and native Americans.  Some of old Post Oaks approach three feet in diameter, and are as old as or older than the Davie Poplar—mature trees before European settlers came to our area.  Ponder all that has taken place beneath their spreading branches!

—Alan Weakley, Director, UNC Herbarium

(note: slightly different versions of this article appeared in the Carrboro Citizen and the North Carolina Botanical Garden newsletter)