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

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Penstemon calycosus

 As I walked the garden this month and watched Penstemon calycosus go from bud to full bloom I was reminded of when we first met. It was love at first sight, but, it took me years to find it. Here's the story.
Finding new wildflowers is still a joy, but, back then, I was recovering from feeling like a complete garden failure. I was terribly inexperienced and it hadn't occurred to me that the plants that I saw growing so happily in other gardens wouldn't grow in mine. I had no idea that my garden conditions were not like my friend's yards. I assumed they were because we were gardening in the same neighborhood. It took a bit of research to figure out that this yard used to be part of a woodland of native trees, shrubs, perennials and ephemerals before developers bulldozed it to create new housing for a growing middle class in the post war 50s. They built brick houses that had deep backyards and bare front yards. They left a few trees, but took out the understory and planted lawn grasses, so that boys and girls could play baseball, kickball and reach for the sky on their backyard swings. There was one owner of our property before we bought it. Lawn was sparse when we moved here in 1985 and it's obvious to me now that it must have always struggled, but, shagbark hickories, elms, ashes, oaks, junipers and rough leaved dogwoods kicked butt and thrived. So did the wildflowers which were growing in the woodland remnants on the edges and corners of the garden.
The turning point of my education as a gardener came from reading Thomas E Hemmerly's book, Wildflowers of the Central South. The pieces all fell together and it finally made sense why my yard was so difficult.

He introduced me to concepts that were important to know if I were to have any success at gardening here. I learned about Middle Tennessee microclimates and about the unique wildflowers that grew only in the cedar glades. I was able to figure out that my garden was a xeric oak-hickory forest plant community with areas of shallow soil and limestone bedrock very near the surface. The shallow, nearly neutral clay soil was hard as concrete during our dry summers and wet and sticky during our rainy winters.

Conditions like that needed special plants. Plants that were waiting in the garden wings for me to notice. I mulled over what I learned from his book and found myself thinking: "Gail, your garden isn't a failure, but, trying to make it something that it isn't is the true failure. Take a look at what's already growing here. Appreciate and celebrate what you have."
The Garden of Benign Neglect when it was at its best
The following spring I was able to identify columbines, Spring beauties, false rue anemone, rue anemone, toothwort, false garlic, golden ragwort, Phlox divaricata, blue-eyed grass, Western Daisy,  downy mint, lyre-leaf sage, and sedges were living in the lawn. Crawling about I discovered trout-lily, Dutchman's Breeches and Trilliums were hiding under the shrubs.

How lucky could a gardener get!

Then, in May, I found dozens of Penstemon calycosus growing in the wayback backyard. Not only was it growing in the dry shade, it was thriving in a soggy, wet area with mosses. I fell instantly in love.
Penstemon calycosus became a foundation plant for my late spring garden. I transplanted it to the front garden where it began to set seed and spread. I still delight in the buds and blooms and wait impatiently for the first Bumblebees to visit it in May. It's a major food source for bumbles and hummingbirds. I miss the activity when bloom time passes, but other beauties move in to provide for them.

Penstemon calycosus is a fantastic plant for moist sunny garden beds or woodland edges. I like the lance-shaped, semi-glossy, medium green, finely saw-toothed edged foliage that is semi-evergreen in my garden. The snapdragon like flowers are produced on terminal panicles that bloom for at least a month, especially if the spring is cooler. Folks further north might have a longer bloom time than here.

small carpenter bee
It's a plant I would love to see showcased in more gardens. I have never seen P calycosus offered for sale in a garden center or big box store. What's offered are cultivars of P digitalis or the many western Penstemons that act as annuals in most gardens east of the Mississippi River. If you want to try this beauty check with a native plant nursery.

It's a disease resistant plant that grows in almost any conditions. The literature says it's partial to full sun and moist, well-drained to dry soils, but, folks, remember, that it was found growing on wet weather seeps that are anything but well draining; so, it can take wet feet for a while. It has survived droughty summers and wet winters and blooms beautifully every spring. What it cannot tolerate is a xeric type garden.

As I said earlier, it's been planting itself around my garden for years, but, last fall I transplanted several dozen plants in two different locations to create a big display. I am happy to say that not only do I like them, but the bees seem to love being able to move from plant to plant.

nectar guides and fuzzy "tongue" in each open bloom

I will continue to mass it and let it romp to its heart's content. Yes, it does romp, but, not with abandon. This take care of itself, rough and tumble beauty is a successful self seeder. It seems to look good with almost any other wildflower or shrub. It's planted itself near Baptisias, Tradescantia, Zizia aurea, purple leaved Heucheras, bluestar, Blephilia subnuda, Aquilegia canadensis, Chasmanthium latifolium and Hypericum frondosum.  

I've even found it growing in cracks and crevices. I like that in a plant, but if you don't just cut the seed heads off. Just don't call this native invasive, it's a highly successful seeder and very easy to transplant.

Seriously, what's not to like about a plant that has a long bloom season, is semi evergreen, turns a lovely burgundy in the winter, grows easily from seed, brings on the pollinators and makes you smile?


The Particulars

Common Name: beardtongue
Family: Plantaginaceae (they used to be in the fig wort family)
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Native Range: Eastern and southeastern United States
Native plant community: Mesic prairie, woodland, Savannah
Zone: 3 to 8
Height: 3.00 to 5.00 feet Spread: 1.50 to 2.00 feet
Plant structure: Leaves are bright green and arranged opposite from each other along the stems. Blades are lanceolate and glossy with serrate edges and pointed tips. The leaves are up to 5” long and 2” across.
Bloom Time: April to June
Bloom Description: Pale lavender to deep purple. Each tubular flower is about 1" long, with 2 upper lobes and 3 lower lobes; the lower lobes do not project outward any further than the upper lobes. On the outer surface, the corolla is light violet or purple and covered with fine hairs, while the inner surface is white. The lower inner surface of the corolla is smooth and lacks ridges. The anthers and style are inserted within the corolla. There are nectar guides for bees.
Sun: Full sun, part sun, shade, filtered shade
Soil: Plants tolerate clay, alkaline pH and heat.
Water: Dry to medium
Maintenance: Medium
Propagation: Florets are followed by small capsules containing many tiny seed that self seed wonderfully.
Suggested Use: Naturalize, Rain Garden, Wildlife Garden, Cut Flower Garden, or Meadow. Plants are also used as Butterfly Nectar Plants or as part of a Groundcover, Grouping or Mass Planting.   Showy Blooms and is appropriate for Cottage Gardens, Deer Resistant Plantings, Water-wise Landscapes, Low Maintenance Plantings, Rain Gardens, Shade Gardens and Perennial Borders.

Wildlife value:  Long tongued bees, butterflies, sphinx moths and hummingbirds sip nectar from the flowers.  Caterpillars of several moth species feed on the foliage.
Tolerate: Deer, Drought, Clay Soil, Dry Soil
Botanical history: John Mitchell, an 18th century American botanist, recorded the first botanical description of this plant genus; Carl Linnaeus included it in his landmark publication Species Plantarum in 1753. According to legend, Native Americans once used this plant as a versatile medicinal remedy. Its unusual common name comes from a fuzzy "tongue" in each open bloom, which gives a slight resemblance to a mouth and a tongue. The genus name "Penstemon" comes from Greek words for "five threads," referring to the stamens of each blossom.(source)

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, April 22, 2020

Wildflower Wednesday: Eastern Red Columbine

Eastern red columbine has bloomed just in time for migrating Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and that's no coincidence. Hummingbirds and certain flowers have co-adapted over millions of years to form a mutually beneficial relationship. Hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles annually and they're movement north typically coincides with the blooming of these preferred flowers. Eastern red columbine (trumpet honeysuckles, too) hold more nectar than other flowers and are irresistible to hummingbirds. Their co-adapted/mutually beneficial relationship is pretty cool. The long bill and tongue of these hummers fits into the throat of their preferred flowers to easily reach the nectar, and while feeding, grains of pollen spill onto the head of the bird and is carried to other columbines insuring pollination.

The bumblebee is another important pollinator and collects nectar and pollen for their larvae.  Some of our larger queen bumblebees, which are also active in early spring, have proboscises long enough to reach the nectar; others “cheat” (Eastern carpenter bees are known nectar robbers)  by tearing holes in the spurs to steal nectar without performing pollination services.

The co-adaption dance is marvelous and it's happening in gardens all over the Eastern United States.
If I ever capture a photo, I will be eternally appreciative.
red sepals, yellow-limbed petals, 5 distinctive red spurs and a mass of bushy yellow stamens
I love the unique and beautiful flowers of columbines. The flower is approximately 1.5 to 2 inches long and hangs downward from its stalk. Each flower has five petals, five petal-like sepals and strongly exerted stamens and styles. The petals are yellow at the rounded tip and red to purplish-red at the base of its rounded nectar-spur.

Wild columbines will hybridize with other columbines and you can have a variety of colors from the cross pollination. I only grow Aquilegia canadensis, so I haven't seen this, but, a friend had the cutest delicate pink columbine that she said was a natural cross.

Have you had this happen in your garden? It might be fun to cross pollinate them.

 Aquilegia canadensis is commonly known as wild columbine or eastern red columbine. It occurs naturally in rich rocky woods, north-facing slopes, cliffs, ledges, pastures, bogs, fens and roadside banks. It is very happy in our gardens and asks only for good drainage to survive wet winters.
growing in cracks in stone steps
Erosion is an issue in my sloping garden with its heavy winter rains and I am always tickled to see where columbine seeds germinate. I've scattered seeds for years and the rain must wash the seeds into the rock edges of my beds, because this is where they always seem happiest. They also pop up in every crack and crevice as seen in the above photo.
I've read that you can deadhead the plant for more blooms, but, I have never had much success with that. I let them go to seed, because I love free plants and I think the seedheads are equally delightful! You'll know they are ripe when the it splits open and shiny black pearls spill out. Collect and plant them where ever you want more lanterns to light up your garden.

Eastern  red columbine's bloom period overlaps with Golden ragwort and Phlox pilosa and I dubbed them the Happy Trinity of Clay and Limestone. In my metaphorical mindset, the trio is like a Mirepoix (cuisine)/holy trinity of ingredients and spices that when mixed together make the gardens colorful and tasty each spring. They are the garden's Spring flavor base and it gets even more delicious as Spring progresses. (Happy Flower Trinity)

 I love the way columbine intermingles with the pinks and purples throughout my garden, not to all tastes, but a delicious presentation none the less. With any successful garden recipe there are always plants that provide additional flavor and I will tweak the recipe a little each year, adding new ingredients, adjusting others. It's important to experiment and see what tasty combinations you can create.

I see a few spots that need some eastern red columbine...hoping it will be delicious next spring.

The Particulars

Botanical name: Aquilegia canadensis
Common Name: wild columbine or Eastern red columbine
Family: Ranunculaceae
Native Range: Eastern North America
Zone: 3 to 8
Height: 2.00 to 3.00 feet Spread: 1.00 to 1.50 feet
Bloom Time: April to May
Bloom Description: Light pink/yellow to blood red/yellow
Flower: Showy, Good Cut flower
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Attracts: Bumblebees and the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visit the flowers for nectar; bumblebees may also collect pollen for their larvae. Short-tongued Halictid bees collect pollen from the flowers, but they are less effective at cross-pollination. The larvae of various insects feed on Wild Columbine, including those of Erynnis lucilius (Columbine Duskywing), Papaipema leucostigma (Borer Moth sp.), Pristophora aquiligae (Columbine Sawfly), and several Phytomyza spp. (Leaf Miner Flies).(source)

giant leopard moth or eyed tiger moth (Hypercompe scribonia)

Tolerate: Rabbit, Deer, Drought, Dry Soil Garden locations
Comments: Foliage is toxic and it is little bothered by mammalian herbivores. Excellent garden plant, good in shade gardens, rock gardens, cottage gardens or naturalized areas. The light, airy texture of the stems and flowers combines well with a variety of early bloomers such as Wild Geranium, Foamflower, and Wild Ginger.

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.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Such a pretty spring flower

Oh my, it smells like rotting flesh!

The Paw paw is in flower and it's only taken 6 years. Not just one flower, there are two. There's little hope for fruiting, the flowers are on the same plant, but, I remain hopeful that a Zebra swallowtail will show up!

The back story (from earlier post)

Everything I knew about Paw-paws I learned from Captain Kangaroo...seriously. Back in TV land in the mid-fifties the Captain invited us to sing along and mime picking up Paw-paws and putting them in a basket. I hadn't the faintest idea he was talking about a fruit, actually a giant berry, but, I remember loving the game.

That was the last I heard about Asimina triloba or Common Paw paws until I became a native plant gardener and began learning to identify native wildflowers and trees. After a small patch was pointed out to me on a trail at Edwin Warner park my interest grew. Paw paws are not only a charming looking understory tree, but, it has good wildlife value for critters. It's a favorite host plant (larvae feed on the leaves and flowers) of the zebra swallowtail butterfly in the southeastern states and its only host plant for more northern locations. The fruit of the Paw paw is also eaten by forest mammals. But, it wasn't until my friend Terri Barnes of GroWild shared a few with me that I had any idea how wonderful they tasted~ a sweet, custard flavor that's quite hard to describe.
Beautiful in fall

A good looking tree and a good food source for critters~including humans! I had to have them in my garden. My friend Joanna (also a Tennessee Naturalist) told me about a local tree sale that was selling Paw paws and other native trees. Of course I bought one. I planted that seedling one spring day and then I planted a Paw paw patch!

Okay, patch might be too strong a description, but, I planted more Paw paws.

The Paw paw patch
A friend and I dug six small clonal divisions from his large Paw paw patch. Those divisions spent the rest of spring, summer and early fall in a nursery bed. They were watered regularly during the hot, dry summer and were planted about 10 feet from the other seedling in hopes that any flowers produced would be pollinated by flies and other pollinators attracted to their flowers' rotting flesh fragrance!

Paw paws don't self-pollinate, they spread clonally/vegetatively. No matter how big the patch gets, they still need Paw paws that are not part of its clonal group for pollination. Hopefully, my little patch will produce smelly flowers that will attract flies and beetles and Paw paw fruit will be in my future. (for more about flies go to: We can't all be pretty pollinators)

I broke these Paw paw rules and so should you: One, they're divisions and Paw paw divisions usually fail when transplanted; two, I planted in the fall and recommended planting is spring; three, this garden is any thing but a Paw paw's preferred growing site~i.e. well-drained, deep, fertile bottom-land.

Here's what I did:

  1. Dug them in April from an established patch.
  2. Planted them immediately into the kiddie pool nursery bed in a mixture of leaf mold, soil conditioner, compost and two bags of Complete Landscape Mix (expanded shale for drainage).
  3. Watered and nurtured them
  4. Planted them in mid-November in a part of the garden with deeper, rich soil, on a well draining slope near a water source. I planted them at the same depth they were growing in the kiddie pool using the soil they were grown in, taking special care with the fibrous roots, then watered them in well and mulched with leaf mold and fallen leaves to mimic their native habitat. 
  5. Continued to water and nurture them through middle Tennessee brutal summers.

About Paw-paws, in case you wondered.
The Common Paw paw is the northernmost New World representative of the Annonaceae tropical family. It's called a "tropical fruit for the temperate area". It's a lovely understory tree with big leaves and large greenish-blackish fruit. Inside is a delightful tasting fruit that's pale to dark yellow with a network of dark seeds. The taste has been described as a banana-mango-pineapple~I don't know, I just thought it was good.

Asimina triloba is native to the eastern US from the great lakes all the way to the Gulf coast and west into Tennessee where I live and garden. It's found naturally growing in the hills around my neighborhood where it gets the excellent drainage it requires. Grown in full sun it will develop a narrowly pyramidal shape with dense, drooping foliage down to the ground level. Although, it's reported to fruit better in full sun it needs shade and protection from winds its first two years. Remember to plant two trees so they can cross pollinate and please don't dig them from the wild.

If you're fortunate and have generous friends you might try a Paw paw experiment like mine. What have you got to lose! I celebrate my two flowers. They encourage me to continue to break the established horticulture rules and I encourage you to keep breaking them, too.


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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