Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Virginia Bluebells

Mertensia virginica is in gorgeous bloom in natural areas all around middle Tennessee.**

It's hard to believe, but, this is one wildflower not in my garden. Once upon a time there was a small, but, lovely stand that made me smile every spring. A dozen years ago we reworked the front garden path. We made it wider, built a small wall and had the workers place a beautiful boulder a few feet from the new path. It wasn't until the following spring, when I couldn't find any blooming Virginia bluebells that I realized that the boulder was sitting on top of them.

Look at that blue and pink! I know you'll agree with me, that's it's long past time to bring these beauties back to Clay and Limestone.

In the meantime, here's our March Wildflower Wednesday star.

I adore their water-colored beauty. The pink buds transition to shades of blue, with touches of lavender as they open. The nodding bells are perfectly complimented by the gray green leaves and stems (technically pendulate spiral-shaped cymes).

source: Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man)
Mertensia virginica is a member of the Boraginaceae (Borage) family. Wildflowers in this family are most often blue, mauve, pink or purple, and many of them change from reddish to blue as the flowers age. The leaves of most species in this family are hairy, and some of them can cause uncomfortable skin irritation if they are handled repeatedly. Although, Virginia bluebells share the color changing flower characteristic with other Borage family members, their leaves, stems and flowers are not hairy. The genus name Mertensia is in honor of the German botanist Franz Karl Mertens (1764-1831).
Creekside at Taylor Hollow

They thrive in moist, woodland soil, damp river bottomlands and clearings in shaded forests. They're native to most of eastern North America.

A long-lived perennial, Virginia bluebells expands slowly to form beautiful clumps that return year after year. They're ephemerals and emerge early each spring, taking advantage of the rich, moist soil and full sunlight streaming through the bare branches of the deciduous trees. In the short period of time before the tree canopy emerges and blocks the sunlight, they must grow, leaf-out, flower, be pollinated, produce seeds and die back (retreat underground).

Amazing isn't it?
 Columbine, anemones, violets and other shade loving natives grow well alongside Virginia bluebells
They will become dormant by midsummer, so use other plants to hide any gaps left behind. Native Christmas ferns, wild ginger, and fall blooming woodland ex-asters make lovely companions. They will also help you identify exactly where the dormant plants are so you don't drop a boulder on them like I did!

Virginia Native Plant Society
Adding Virginia bluebells to your garden is a great way to provide nectar to local pollinators in the early spring. Bumblebees are often seen visiting flowers, and according to the New York Botanical Garden: "our native queen bumblebee serves as the principal pollinator of Virginia bluebells. Because the nectar is at the base of the long, bell-like flowers, bees that do not have a proboscis (tongue) long enough to reach it may take a shortcut and slit the corolla closer to the nectar source to pilfer the nectar. In short, some bees are nectar robbers of Virginia bluebells, which makes them ineffective as pollinators. The flowers are funnel shaped and pollinators must hover making the bumblebee a rare pollinator. It makes more sense that butterflies would be the more common pollinator; they can grasp the edges of the flower petals as they explore (and pollinate) individual flowers.

Dear readers, have you seen pollinators on your Virginia bluebells?

The Particulars

Mertensia virginica
Virginia Bluebells
Borage family (Boraginaceae)
Type: Perennial, spring ephemeral
Zone: 4, 5, 6, 7
Range: Eastern US and Canada; NY & s. Ont. to e. MN, s. to NC, AR & e. KS; naturalized northeastward

Spring ephemeral: emerges in late winter, yellows and disappears by June/July

Blooms: March through April
Habitat: moist bottomlands, clearings in moist woodlands
Flower:Terminal clusters of pendulous, trumpet-shaped pink, blue flowers


Size: They grow 18 inches tall and spread
Soil: moist, well drained soil, that's slightly acidic to neutral
Water: moist soil essential
Wildlife value: Faunal Associations: The flowers are cross-pollinated by long-tongued bees primarily, including honeybees, bumblebees, Anthophorid bees (Anthophora spp., Synhalonia spp.), and mason bees (Osmia spp.); these insects obtain nectar and/or collect pollen. Other visitors of the flowers include the Giant Bee Fly (Bombylius major), butterflies, skippers, and Sphinx moths, including a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). This group of visitors suck nectar from the flowers. Halictid bees and Syrphid flies sometimes visit the flowers, but they are too small in size to be effective pollinators. In some areas, the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has been observed to visit the flowers. White-Tailed Deer browse on the foliage occasionally during the spring. When this plant forms large colonies, it provides protective cover for many kinds of wildlife during the spring

Thank you for stopping by Clay and Limestone to see our March Wildflower Wednesday star. Virginia bluebells may be the most popular of all spring flowers and can be found in many gardens. It's easy to grow, providing you give it well drained, moist soil and there my friends is the rub for many of us.

I wish you all a peace filled spring and may your gardens bring you happiness and a respite from all that's happening.


** Most of these photos were taken at Taylor Hollow or at Edwin Warner Park on hikes and strolls and I hope they showcase this beautiful wildflower.

Wildflower Wednesday is about sharing wildflowers from your part of the world. Don't worry if you have nothing in bloom, you can still showcase one of your favorites. You don't have to write anything, just share your wildflowers. The native plants I've chosen are adapted to the environment and conditions at Clay and Limestone and provide food, nesting and/or shelter for mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. Humans seem to appreciate it, too.  It doesn't matter if we sometimes show the same plants; how they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. I hope you join the celebration...It's always the fourth Wednesday of the month!

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Alabama Croton Revisited

I can clearly recall the first time I saw many of the Wildflower Wednesday stars, but, Croton alabamensis is not one of them. What I remember was how long and hard I searched for it. I was thrilled when Paul Moore, a dear friend and fellow wildflower aficionado offered a seedling to me. I clearly remember the day I drove to his garden to pick up the Alabama croton. If one can dance while driving it was certainly me.

Let me say first that Paul's garden is lovely. It sits on the top of a hill in southwest Davidson county over looking Nashville. It is a beautiful and artistically designed garden and reflects  Paul's sensibilities as a landscape photographer and a native plant lover. The wildflowers are scrumptious, as is his moss lawn! But, I digress...and will show you his garden another time.

Alabama Croton has formed a thicket in Paul's garden (1/20/14)

You get your first look at Alabama croton as you drive up the long, curving drive. There was a large planting, at least 20 feet wide and 6 feet or more deep.

February 25, 2020

It was a gorgeous thicket of silver and orange fluttering leaves; striking against the winter blue sky. It is clearly a year round beauty and I was so fortunate to be taking home a seedling for Clay and Limestone.

I wanted that thicket in my garden and planted the seedlings right were I thought they would be happiest; on a sunny slope, where it would get sun and the drainage it would need in our wet winters.

Alas, my dream did not come true, several years later the city tree trimmers dropped limbs from my poor desecrated Bur oak on top of the bed it was planted in. To add insult and further injury, the workers stomped all over the plants while picking up the limbs. I was pretty steamed and terribly sad when I came home to find it and several other plants destroyed.
There are three seedlings in the container (2/25/20)

Fast forward to now, Paul, generous friend that he is, is digging seedlings for me. When he messaged me that he had plants for me, I rushed over to get them. In case you wondered, there was happy dancing going on.

pumpkin orange fall and winter leaves
Alabama croton is endemic to a few counties in Alabama, one county in Middle Tennessee (Coffee) and three counties in faraway Texas (Croton alabamensis var. texensis/Texabama croton) and is still nearly impossible to find for sale.

Alabama Croton is the bees knees.

  • it's not deterred by dry, poor, limey soil
  • it easily braves hot summers like we've been having the past few years,
  • it will grow in decent garden soil that is well draining,
  • it grows in the full sun, but, can appreciate a semi-shady location, 
  • it's native to Middle Tennessee, 
  • it's locally sourced, and 
  • it has year round interest.
This rare, semi-evergreen southern shrub is worthy of wider use in gardens. Alabama croton is an irregular, multi-stemmed shrub that grows to 5′ tall. Its bright green foliage with striking, silvery scales beneath is attractive in summer as well as in autumn when it develops pumpkin-orange colored foliage.
Can you see the silver scales on the leaves?

It produces very few leaves, but, the ones it has are noted for their elliptic to oblong-shape and glistening silver scales and stunning autumn color. In milder winters the leaves hang on and flutter green and orange until spring.

That's exactly what you see when you visit Paul's garden.

elliptic to oblong leaves flutter in the wind

Croton alabamensis performs well in full sun to partial shade in well-drained to very dry soils. It is tolerant of slightly acidic to very alkaline soils. I've found that it needs very good drainage and that was one reason it was planted on the sloped section of the garden under the over hanging limbs of the Bur oak.

Alabama croton is a good companion when planted with Rhus aromatica, Clematis viorna, Coreopsis auriculata, Phlox divaricata, Schizachyrium scoparium, Amsonia ciliata var. tenuifolia, Coreopsis grandiflora, and Liatris microcephala.

Those companion plantings sound delightful and I have some seedlings of Amsonia, Coreopsis and Liatris to plant with it. I do hope it forms a thicket.

Even the flowers have scales  Source: E. A Smith
Mature shrubs produce 2" panicles of pale yellow blooms in the late winter or early spring. They're   highly attractive to bees and butterflies. In fact, it's a host plant for the Goatweed Leafwing butterfly.

fruits/drupes from the Wasowski Collection

The Particulars

Croton alabamensis
Common name: Alabama Croton
Family: Euphorbiaceae (Spurge Family)
Native Range: Southern United States, but found naturally occuring in only three states, Texas, Alabama and Tennessee.
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone: 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Light: Deep shade (Less than 2 hours to no direct sunlight) Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
Soil: Alabama croton grows naturally on limestone bluffs and will tolerate dry, poor soil. Soil rich in organic matter, with excellent drainage is also fine.
Flower Color: Gold/Yellow
Inflorescence: Raceme
Flower Bloom Time: Spring
Flower Description: Yellow-green flowers on 1-1.5" raceme.
Deciduous Leaf Color: Gray/Silver
Green Deciduous Leaf
Fall Color: Orange, persists through the winter.
Leaf Type: Simple
Leaf Arrangement: Alternate
Leaf Description: Apple-green leaves. The lower surface of the leaf is silvery in color. Oldest leaves turn brilliant orange in the fall.
Wildlife value: Host plant for Goatweed Leafwing butterfly/Anaea andria
Comments: Be sure it has great drainage.
Blooms already! 2/25/20

You may be wondering where you can find them. Middle Tennessee gardeners contact Terri Barnes at GroWild, they may have them or know where to find them. Alabama gardeners, try contacting  your local Native Plant Society and Texas gardeners go to Hill Country Natives.


Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  Thank you all for joining me as we celebrate and share our marvelous and beautiful wildflowers. I hope 2020 is the year we all plant more native wildflowers for the many critters that live in and visit our gardens. Let's be sure we celebrate them every day, not just WW. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, you can still share them. Please leave a comment and add your name to Mr Linky so others can pop over to see your Wildflower Wednesday post.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Resurrection Fern

Pleopeltis polypodioides is remarkably beautiful and resilient.
Photo credit: Ellen Honeycutt, south Georgia, Altama Plantation WMA
If you've seen it covering the limbs of an ancient oak tree you'll know what I mean by beautiful and if you've seen it shrivel up in a drought and resurrect when the rain returns, you will know what I mean by resilient.

Resurrection fern in Edwin Warner Park

The first time I noticed the tree was on a walk at Edwin Warner Park. I happened to look up and see  ferns covering all the limbs of a massive tree. It was magnificent and I pondered the many times I had walked beneath it before noticing it. Sometimes a wildflower enthusiast spends too much time looking down and misses the beauty that is just above them. Since then, I make sure to always look up when walking in a natural area...I don't want to miss anything.

 Univ of Florida
As I said earlier, resurrection fern is beautiful and incredibly resilient. When the weather is dry, it turns gray and shrivels up. It can lose 95 percent of it's moisture and survive. By contrast, many plants will be pronounced dead if they lose as little as 10 percent of their water content. When the rain comes, it will spring to life within a matter of hours, turning bright green and unfurling its fronds.

How does it accomplish this? Drying fronds curl with their bottom sides upward, this allows them to rehydrate quickly when rains return because most of the water is actually absorbed on the bottom of the fronds. The plant produces a chemical/substance called dehydrin. These dehydrins act as a lubricant so the cells fold in a manner that allows drying to be reversed. (source)

A fern like that should be in every one's garden! 


Pleopeltis polypodioides is found in hardwood forests throughout the Southeast, as far north as New York and as far west as Texas. Due to its ability to withstand drought, it can be found in a variety of habitats, but it needs a host plant on which to anchor itself. Resurrection ferns often favor oak trees and the one's I have seen in nearby woodlands have all been oaks.

The resurrection fern is a type of epiphytic fern, which means it grows on top of other plants. It is not a parasitic plant and does not harm the host plant. It gets its nutrients from the air and water. Like all ferns, it reproduces by spores, not seeds or fruit. The spores are housed in structures called sori on the underside of fronds.

Identifying Characteristics and Particulars

Botanical name: Pleopeltis polypodioides

Common name:  Resurrection fern

Family: Polypodiaceae

Habitat: It is found in many hardwood forest habitats. The plant is native to the eastern United States west to Texas and throughout the American tropics. Its most often seen growing on the branches or main stem of large trees like oaks. It's possible that they rely on mosses for moisture which indicates that they prefer a moist environment.  Situated in the crotches and  branches of large trees allows them to capture sunlight and moisture more easily. The photo below from my garden shows moss is present with the fern.

Mosses might provide some moisture to the ferns

Zone: 6 to 9 

Size/Form: This tiny, creeping fern has a long stem to which the fronds are attached. Extensive colonies of resurrection ferns can be formed in the open shade of trees. Fronds are usually 4 to 12 inches long and a very nice green. They are easy to maintain, don't harbor diseases. They offer a graceful note to any landscape design.

Height: 0.50 to 1.00 feet Spread: 0.50 to 1.00 feet

Stem: The long, horizontal, skinny stem is less than 1/12" in diameter and is attached to and creeps along the bark of large trees.

Leaves: The leathery, evergreen leaves are called fronds and are 4" to 12" long. The fronds are made of smaller, rounded, oblong blades alternately arranged but tending to become opposite.
spores on underside of fronds (source)

Reproduction: The spores are found in clusters, called sori, on the bottom of the blades near the edge. The sori appear as brown to black scales.

Bloom Time: Non-flowering. See Sori above.

Sun: Part shade to full shade

Water: Medium to maintain greenery, but, it will dry out during droughts and resurrect/green up when it rains

Wildlife value: From a wildlife point of view, ground ferns can give structure that provides foraging space and shelter for ground-feeding birds, while other critters, for example frogs and turtles, like to hide in them. (source) Resurrection fern lives in the trees and on some fallen limbs and is not without value. Stems, leaves, and flowers host microorganisms, creating a habitat called a phyllosphere, a term used in microbiology to refer to all above-ground portions of plants as habitat for microorganisms. I am not a microbiologist, but, I believe that these micro-organisms are often beneficial  to the host. Native people recognized resurrection ferns value. They used it a diuretic, a remedy for heart problems, and as a treatment for infections. Recent medical research is confirming some of these folklore reports and has shown that the extracts from the fern have anti-arrhythmic cardiac properties. (source)  

Maintenance: Little maintenance is required unless you want to keep it green. In nature it greens and dries up naturally and requires no care.

Comments: Resurrection ferns have even been to space. The Space Shuttle Discovery carried one onboard in 1997 to test the resurrection effect in zero gravity.

I repeat, A fern like that should be in every one's garden! But, it's not always easy to locate plants for sale. If you're lucky like me you might have a piece of bark from a fallen tree. Search the internet for nurseries that do not collect from the wild. Your local WildOne chapter or Native Plant Society might have members who will share plants with you. Don't be afraid to ask. Unfortunately, I haven't enough to share.

I hope you can find a source, let me know when you do.


Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday.  Thank you all for joining me as we start another year of sharing marvelous and beautiful wildflowers. I hope 2020 is the year we all plant more native wildflowers for the many critters that live in and visit our gardens. Let's be sure we celebrate them every day, not just WW. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, you can still share them.  Please leave a comment and add your name to Mr Linky so others can pop over to see your Wildflower Wednesday post.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


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