About Me

My photo
I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Native Medicinal Plants at the University of Kansas

Today I had the opportunity to tour the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program at the University of Kansas, a tour led by enthusiastic KU ethnobotanist Kelly Kindscher. I learned a number of things I didn't know before, such as that boneset, one of the white eupatoriums volunteering in our back yard, was used as a treatment by Appalachian people during the 1918 influenza epidemic--and worked, a good bit of the time.

I discovered a new (to me) echinacea: Topeka purple coneflower (echinacea atrorubens), which grows wild in only a few places in the Great Plains. The specimen here has a friend.
I also discovered that wild baptisia has even more interesting blooms than the cultivars I've grown in the past. Some of the specimens in the test garden have bicolor buds.
Even though our group wasn't able to get to the Rockefeller Prairie remnant as planned, a good time was had by all. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Always something new to learn

I am looking through a different window this week, that of a quite nice honors dorm at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The amenities have improved since my long-ago year at Mu Hall at the U of South Florida. I am in Lawrence for my favorite biennial conference, that of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). This twenty-year-old organization brings together students and practitioners of nature writing from all over the world; the conferences always leave me glad that so many good and interesting people are scattered about doing such good and interesting work.

The conferences are generally held in delightful settings, and this year's meeting is no exception. Lawrence, a place about which I knew nothing until deciding to attend, is a classically pretty Midwestern town filled with tree-lined streets of late-Victorian vernacular houses. The campus itself contains a mix of 19th-century and more modern buildings that coexist happily, and I am looking forward to exploring its two museums.

A real surprise to this West Virginian, however, is the hilliness of the town and the campus. Mount Oread, on which most of the campus sits, is more than a thousand feet above sea level, and getting to the conference sessions from my residence hall involves schlepping up several staircases--not what I expected of Kansas. We are told that there are prairie remnants not too far from here, but you couldn't prove it by looking at the woods in Lawrence.

It's good to have one's preconceptions proven wrong; it wouldn't do to become complacent.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


I've claimed for years to be a decadent creature, though my musician spouse disagrees (probably because the sort of decadence to which gardening English professors are prone differs from that found among musicians whose hobby takes them to places where large quantities of mind-altering beverages are consumed). But since Merriam-Webster defines the term as "characterized by or appealing to self-indulgence," I definitely qualify. Yesterday, for example, with the help of the aforementioned long-suffering spouse, I planted a large specimen of a baptisia actually called "Decadence: Blueberry Sundae." Since our specimen is not yet at its best, here's an image from the growers' website (http://www.provenwinners.com/plants/baptisia/decadence-blueberry-sundae-false-indigo-baptisia-hybrid):
Definitely decadent.

Our specimen is planted in the front yard savannah garden, across the walkway from a baptisia alba, where in future springs these two cousins will flank the path in ivory and blue. They are fronted with feather grass, perhaps my favorite cool-season grass, though not strictly native as it occurs naturally in only a few places in the Southwest. The blue baptisia is accompanied by purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan to continue the color show after the blue flowers have given way to black seed pods. The pink muhly grass survived the winter, so we are looking forward to its pink clouds in fall.

I could go on about the savannah garden plantings, but to do so would be perhaps excessively self-indulgent, and almost certainly strain your patience. There are limits to decadence, after all.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Marsh at McDonough

This morning my long-suffering spouse accompanied me to the McDonough Wildlife refuge in Vienna, WV, just a few miles from our house. I must admit that I'm partial to the refuges around Toledo because they have the virtue of being flat, but the marsh area at our local park was definitely worth visiting, even though I'm still not able to do the steeper trails on the rest of the 277-acre refuge.
 The native blue flag iris was in full bloom, a spectacular sight.

The strappy foliage of one plant sported a coordinating dragonfly.
Bullfrogs were calling, and mallards were being amusing, as mallards generally are. There's just something adorable about duck butts.
The wet meadow on an overcast day looked like something from an Impressionist painting.
And the forest behind the pond was (supply your own adjective or other descriptive phrase).

I had forgotten that all this (along with all the trails not taken this morning) sits right on the edge of classic Mid-Ohio Valley suburbia. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

A love story

I may have fallen in love with physocarpus. No, it's not the name of a space alien, but an utterly indestructible shrub native to the eastern US, which happens to be where I live. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center describes it as "fast-growing, insect and disease resistant, and drought-tolerant," but the plant is more than that. Physocarpus has been with me in my last three houses and has thrived in extremes of soil and light conditions--pure sun and sand, shade and clay--and proven itself relatively unpalatable to deer (which, when desperate enough, seem to eat anything that's not actually poisonous). Besides, it is flat-out gorgeous at its peak (in all its foliage variations) and looks good all year.

"Coppertina" in bloom and bud

"Dart's Gold" showing red stamens and full chartreuse leaf color

Physocarpus plays well with others: in this case, the dark foliage of "Summer Wine" forming a perfect background for the hot colors of Oriental poppy and an iris whose name I do not know.

 When the blossoms finish, these five-foot, arching plants will be covered with pink seed pods that I have managed never to photograph--a serious mistake on my part.

In August, the stems of "Summer Wine" will turn the rich purple of their namesake.

 "Coppertina" will continue to have perhaps my favorite foliage of any shrub and hold its own against the pink fireworks of "Tutti Frutti" hummingbird mint.

In late October, when the leaves finally fall from these plants that have given joy since early spring and asked for nothing in return, the exfoliating bark will give interest to the front border all winter.

If physocarpus were human, I'd probably marry it.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

More amusement

A sunny day last week found Feraldine, our fraidy cat, staring intently out the front door. Given that she remains timid even after five years of living with us, I was curious about what could be so fascinating as to make her completely ignore the presence of humans.

 The object of Feraldine's undivided attention proved to be the smallest chipmunk I had ever seen among the hordes that inhabit our yard. 

While there is no way to tell from the photograph, I estimated that this little creature was about half the size of an average member of its species. My guess is that it was one of this year's first brood of chipmunk babies, which may have been born as early as March. Certainly, it didn't seem to know enough to run from a cat or a human on the other side of a glass door. More recently, I have seen what may be this same rodent engaged in a through-the-glass faceoff with various of our cats. (I hope it runs from Shadow, a neighbor cat who finds chipmunk-hunting to be great sport.)

    And as if adolescent chipmunks aren't enough cuteness for one day, Stumpy the squirrel chose to visit. We seem to have plenty of company this spring.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Details to delight

Sometimes one is too busy living life to document it, and the end-of-semester rush is like that, even for those of us working largely from home as I have been these last few weeks. But all the papers have now been read and duly commented-upon, and all student grades are now posted in the online student information system, and I am taking a break before finishing the talk I will be giving at a conference on the 29th. Much has been happening in the yard, as is always true of mid-spring, and my brief wanderings-with-camera have revealed details of the sort that make me happy. (Okay, so I'm easily amused.)

Physocarpus may be my favorite shrub. It has no scent to speak of, but this eastern US native is utterly indestructible and has beautiful bark, foliage, blooms, and seed pods. 

 This little beauty is the cultivar "Dart's Gold," growing alongside our driveway. Until this week, I had never really noticed the tiny red centers of the flowers.
The dark-leaved cultivars"Coppertina" (l) and "Summer Wine" (r) grow in the hell strip along the street in front of our house.

For scent, our native sweetshrub, calycanthus floridus has enough to make up for its neighbors' lack. This is the cultivar "Athens," blooming next to the screened porch. (One must allow oneself some decadent pleasures, and the scent of sweetshrub is one of them.)    

But my (perhaps) favorite detail of the year is on a plant that I was talked into acquiring by the owner of a native plant nursery.
I had visited the nursery intending to bring home gray dogwood to start a hedge in our shady area but of course came home with various other plants, some of which I had never heard of. One of these was acer pennsylvanicum, striped maple, an understory tree generally grown for its attractive bark. Our specimen is still only about three feet high, so its bark isn't terribly exciting yet, but I've fallen in love with its crinkled foliage and tiny blossoms.
And I do mean tiny.