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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