Category Archives: native plants

Superstars in the Background

Years ago, we ripped out a poison ivy-riddled forsythia hedge that separated the back garden from the neighbor’s back yard. The poison ivy clearly added no charm, and the five foot wide hedge cramped the style of the 20 foot deep garden. So – out came the hedge and in went the four-foot picket fence. Now the question: what would be the perfect vine to climb the fence, soften the boundary and create some privacy?

After a year of the annual hyacinth bean vine (which proved gorgeous but slightly ill-behaved and slightly poisonous), I chose coral honeysuckle (lonicera sempervirens). This native beauty remains, as its Latin name indicates, semi-evergreen here in zone 6b, so it continues to provide some privacy even when everything else bares its bones. So, quite adequate for winter. But boy, does it satisfy the other three seasons. It greens up in early spring, then, around April, sends out a waterfall of coral blossoms that colors my spring garden and sings its siren song to the neighborhood hummingbirds. It continues to bloom all season long – even now in November, I have some blossoms. This year, I’ve noticed a bonus fall feature – beautiful red berries which I assume will last for the next few months.

As if the blooms and the berries weren’t enough, the foliage is two toned: warm green on the front of the leaf, silvery on the back. The effect is a variegated look that adds depth and texture to what is, underneath, a boring wood fence.

Oh, and it’s native to the eastern U.S., so it grows to a nice 20 feet but doesn’t take over the world like it’s yellow cousin, lonicera japonica.

All this perfection and I use it as a background plant? Afraid it’s true. What a luxury, though, to have a true superstar in the background. What decadence to have a plant you can count on to tie your garden together, to bloom without coddling, to fill in the holes when other specimens prove finicky. It’s like having a true friend who you talk to sporadically and see rarely, but who you know is there nonetheless.

I am blessed to have a few such friends, but one has been on my mind of late. We met during our first week of college when we both turned up to watch Simon and Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park in a hallmate’s dorm room. We ended up living together for the next three years, years that saw changes in majors, changes in boyfriends, and two young women finishing their growing up. Since college we enjoyed just a few years of living in the same town, but most of the time has been spent a half-day’s car ride, a cross-country plane ride, or a transatlantic flight apart. With two husbands, seven children, one and a half jobs, loads of responsibilities and the entire continental United States between us, our talks are rare and our visits rarer. And yet, we remain close friends.  A quick phone call last week reminded me of the important role she plays in my life. Because of 20 years of friendship, 15 minutes on the phone was enough to get to real things, not just the surface stuff we’re stuck with a lot of the time.

I appreciate the superstars who sometimes live in the background – of my garden and of my life. They add beauty, depth and stability. My world wouldn’t be the same without them.

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Violets: Weeds or Wonderful?

Violets are blooming all over southeastern Pennsylvania this week. Their pretty little blue flowers bob above big clumps of heart shaped leaves where gardeners encourage them, and above little clumps of heart shaped leaves where they have tried to eradicate them.

Every year about this time I wonder if I should just let them grow instead of trying in vain to weed them out my garden every year. We’re talking the wild violet here, or viola papilionacea, not their fancy viola cousins for sale at garden centers. These are the ones that just show up. Who decides which plants are weeds anyway? The folks who named milkweed, Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed and sneezeweed clearly had some question about their value in the cultivated garden. Yet native plant enthusiasts (myself included) pay cold hard cash to buy them at fancy nurseries and then feature them prominently in their borders.

Back to violets though. No question they are beautiful. Parents name their daughters after them. They represent a color of the rainbow. (Remember Roy G. Biv?) They are Wisconsin’s state flower. And without violets, how would Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson ever have fallen in love? As Mr. Forster describes it:

“Light and beauty enveloped her. She had fallen on to a little open terrace, which was covered with violets from end to end. . . . From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting in pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth. . . . George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her. ” (from A Room With A View).

Wow do I wish I could write like that.

So why not let them run in rivulets, irrigate my hillsides, eddy round my tree stems and cover my grass with spots of azure foam? Violets will do just that if left to their own devices. They are immune to most herbicides, weed and feeds don’t do the trick and REPEATED applications of Round-Up are necessary to make a dent. And this only if you’re willing to douse your garden with chemicals, which I am not. So I usually try to dig them up and throw them out, to no avail. You know, in the woodland section at the Missouri Botanical Garden, their violets are labeled with those nice little name tags I love so much. That must mean they want them there.

Here’s my plan then. If they get shaded out, too bad for them. But if they really want to be here, I think I ought to let them. (I speak here as if I had a choice in the matter). Who wouldn’t want a flower that can fill your face with radiant joy and cause the George Emersons of the world to notice?

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