Reveling with Ravenel

I’d grown quite a few eryngiums…49 different ones, in fact, before Patrick shared Eryngium ravenelii with us in 2015. Who knew we were missing one of the best eryngiums in the entire genus! Today, Eryngium ravenelii holds several places of honor in our garden, where we can watch the myriad of pollinators who regularly stop by for a nectar snack during flowering season (mid-August to late September).

Eryngium ravenelii was named for American botanist, Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887). In the wild, Eryngium ravenelii grows in standing water in flooded ditches, alongside sarracenias (see bottom photo). We’ve now seen them in the wild in both North Florida and South Carolina, where they grow in calcareous-formed soils. In the garden, they thrive in an array of slightly acidic soils as long as the soil is reasonably moist.

Eryngium ravenelii
Eryngium ravenelii
Eryngium ravenelii

Low Country Treasure Hunt

Last week, Patrick, Zac, and I spent a couple of day botanizing in the low country…i.e. Coastal South Carolina. In between swatting away the incredible troupe of mosquitos which chose to join us, we were able to capture a few images to share below.

The ancient lime sinks are fascinating. Here, old sinkholes due to subsurface limestone rock breakdown have collapsed, forming natural depressions, creating a habitat for our native pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) and other fascinating wetland species…like alligators. Yes, we did see several, but they were too fast for our camera.

Taxodium ascendens
Taxodium ascendens

The high water marks are visible on the buttressed trunks of bald cypress.

Taxodium ascendens

Much of the region is, or was, a pine/grass habitat. The pines could either be longleaf (Pinus palustris) or slash pine (Pinus serotina) .The dominant grass is known as wiregrass, aka: Aristida beyrechiana.

Pine/Wiregrass habitat

On the dry sand ridges, we saw these piles of fresh sand adjacent to a nearby tunnel entrance. These are homes to the rare gopher tortoise, which live in the region. Patrick tells me these tortoises will use the same underground lair, which may stretch 40′ long and 10′ deep, for up to 60 years.

Gopher tortoise mound/tunnel

Gopher tortoises only emerge from their tunnels when temperatures are between 80 and 90 degree F. Sure enough, we were able to wait and get some images of these amazing creatures.

Gopher tortoise

Another surprise spotting was a bright orange mutant katydid. Our entomologist Bill Reynolds tells me these are crazy rare, and worth well north of $1000 to collectors. Who knew?

Orange katydid

Yes, we also saw some cool plants. Asclepias obovata is a little-known milkweed that’s quite rare in South Carolina, so it was great to catch it in flower.

At another site nearby, we caught some late flowering plants of Asclepias tuberosa var. rolfsii.

Asclepias tuberosa var. rolfsii

We visited several patches of amazing pitcher plants, one site with a tremendous variation of Sarracenia flava, which is typically solid yellow. Other sties had three species growing side by side including Sarracenia minor, Sarracenia rubra, and Sarracenia flava. It’s great that such natural area still exist, although they are always in danger from those who sadly dig plants from the wild for sale.

Sarracenia flava in situ
Sarracenia flava clump – typical yellow pitchers
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava red pitcher form
Sarracenia flava with a particularly large hood
Sarracneia flava with brown hood and nice veining
Sarracenia flava red neck form
Sarracenia minor
Sarracenia rubra

A plant often seen near the pitcher plants is the native orchid, Plantanthera ciliaris.

Plantanthera ciliaris orchid

We were thrilled to find a couple of large patches of the scrub palm, Serenoa repens, from one of the coldest natural populations, which happened to be in full seed. Clonal patches like this are incredibly slow-growing. Researchers in Florida found that such clonal patches are often between 5,000 and 10,000 years old.

Serenoa repens clonal patch
Serenoa repens clonal patch
Serenoa repens seed

It was great to see large drifts of one of our finest native ferns, Thelypteris kunthii, aka: maiden fern. This superb deciduous fern thrives in both sun and shade, tolerating everything from wet to average soil conditions.

Thelypteris kunthii

A lovely surprise was stumbling on a population of Hamamelis henryi. This coastal species is often listed as a variety of Hamamelis virginiana, but we think it’s probably deserving of species status. Several of the clones we found had lovely dusty blue foliage.

Hamamelis henryi

One of the most amazing shrubs was the hawthorn, Crategus munda var. pexa. These ancient specimens topped out at 4-5′ tall, and looked like ancient bonsai specimens.

Crategus munda var. pexa

I’ve long had a penchant for finding gold leaf sweet gums, and this trip added another one to the list. When many woody plants are cut to the ground, they are much more likely to produce mutations as they re-sprout. In my experience, the genus Liquidambar must be the most prone to such mutations.

Liquidambar styraciflua gold sport

The fall-flowering Georgia savory, Clinopodium georgianum was in full flower. We’ve grown and offered this for decades, but it was fascinating to see the flower color variation in the wild.

Clinopodium georgianum

At one stop, we found five different liatris species, including the little-known Liatris elegans.

Liatris elegans

The native vining legume, Centrosema virginiana, aka: butterfly pea, was in full flower and looking lovely…first cousin to the better known genus, Clitoria.

Centrosema virginiana

I’m not a fan of most smilax species, but I was quite smitten by the non-running dwarf Smilax pumila, which grew in the shade like an Asarum (wild ginger). While some clones had green leaves, others had patterns every bit as good as the best Asarum.

Smilax pumila

On the ride home, we kept ourselves amused unscientifically researching the fastest speed at which leaf-footed bugs could hold onto a car window while copulating. Since our test speed topped out at 65mph, we aren’t sure what it was take to pry these loose, but perhaps someone should research how they are able to hold on so tight, as I’m sure it has numerous industrial applications.

Leaf-footed bugs

Goodbye Champ!

We were saddened this past week to hear of the passing of our friend, Dr. Larry Mellichamp, age 73, after a three year battle with bile duct cancer. I first met Larry in the late 1970s, when he spoke to our Horticulture Club at NC State. Over the next 45 years, we interacted regularly, mostly during his visits to JLBG.

Knowing that Larry was in the battle of his life, we visited him at his wonderful Charlotte home garden last year (photo below). Even while he was ill, his wit remained razor sharp, and his humor as dry as the Sahara desert.

Not only did Larry teach for 38 years (1976-2014) at UNC-Charlotte, but he also managed the 10-acre UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden, which he turned into a must-see horticultural destination. Larry was a huge advocate of interesting plants, especially US natives. He was constantly dropping off new plants for us to propagate and share with a wider audience.

Larry was best known worldwide for his work with carnivorous plants, particularly with the genus Sarracenia. His “little bug” series, (Sarracenia ‘Lady Bug’, ‘June Bug’, ‘Love Bug’, and ‘Red Bug’, released in 2004, was the first widely marketed collection of pitcher plants, from his breeding work with the late Rob Gardener. In 2021, Larry was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Carnivorous Plant Society…one of many such awards Larry received.

Larry’s home sarracenia collection
Sarracenia ‘Red Bug’

Larry was also a prolific writer. His books include: Practical Botany (1983), The Winter Garden with Peter Loewer (1997), Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region with Wells/Case (1999), Bizarre Botanicals with Paula Gross (2010), Native Plants of the Southeast (2014), and The Southeast Native Plant Primer with Paula Gross (2020).

Larry and I connected on many levels, but we were both strong advocates for making rare native plants available for propagation and commercialization…something that is sadly the exception in the current world of botany. We hope others in the native plant community pick up the torch.

Larry is survived by his wife of 48 years, Audrey, his daughter, Suzanne, and a host of plants he spread throughout the world. Life well lived, my friend.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Foundation of the Carolinas for the “Mellichamp
Garden Staff Enrichment Fund”, 220 North Tryon Street, Charlotte, NC 28202. For bank transfer instructions contact donorrelations@fftc.org or 704-973-4529. All are invited to share memories and photos of Larry at https://link.inmemori.com/mDPxXH . A public memorial service will be planned for October at the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Look for an announcement on their website.

Habitat Creation

In case you missed this section of the garden during spring open house, this is where we created a small vignette that comprises both bog and desert conditions in the same space. The low central area was created for pitcher plants and other bog lovers, while the higher areas to each side, are home to dryland loving plants like agaves and bearded iris. We hope to show how dramatically diverse habits can be created in a very small space. The wet space is created by installing a seep, which is nothing more than a continually dripping water line.

Lack no Colon

I love odd plants, and the southeast native Lachnocaulon (pronounced lack no colon) is about as odd as they come. This bog native, often found growing with pitcher plants, forms a mound that looks like a giant pin cushion. Here is a plant of Lachnocaulon anceps (NC west to Texas) in full flower this week at JLBG. Yes, those white round balls are the flowers.

Those tricky plant names

Looking good in the garden this week is the amazing fern, Dryopteris x australis. This rare fern is a US native…despite the confusing name, hailing from only a few scattered locations from Virginia west to Arkansas. In reality, the name “australis” means from the south. This splendid specimen grows in both sun and shade, and tolerates both wet and dry soils. Hardiness is Zone 5a-9b.

A Pitcher of Flowers

Here is a small sampling of the amazing array of flowers that are in the garden currently (late April/early May) on our pitcher plants. The genus Sarracenia is native to North America and hails from Canada south to Florida, where they are found in seasonally damp bogs. In the garden or in containers, they are incredibly easy to grow as long as they have moist toes (roots), and dry ankles (base where the crown meets the roots). Winter hardiness varies based on the species, but most are hardy from zone 5a to 9b.

Sarracenia JLBG-14 (rubra x alata)
Sarracenia JLBG18-06 (harperi ex)
Sarracenia JLBG19-031
Sarracenia Leah Wilkerson
Sarracenia leucophylla ‘Unstained Glass’
Sarracenia ‘Pretty in Pink’
Sarracenia ‘Redman’
Sarracenia ‘Spade’
Sarracenia x catesbyi ‘Sea Creature’

Purple leggings

Iris ‘Gerald Darby’ is one of those iris that doesn’t even need to flower to be garden worthy. Here it is in our garden this week, emerging with its’ purple leggings. This gem is a North American native hybrid of Iris versicolor and Iris virginica, known as Iris x robusta. This introduction of Iris breeder Gerald Darby was actually named for him after his death by another iris breeder R.H. Coe of England. Iris x robusta ‘Gerald Darby’ is equally at home growing in standing water as it is in typical garden soil. Hardiness is Zone 4a-9b.

Atamasca or Atamasco?

Ever since I was a small kid, I’ve observed Zephyranthes atamasco (atamasco lily) in the wild, where they grow in swampy wooded lowlands. Atamasco lily is also one of many great nomenclatural muddles with regard to it’s correct spelling. When it was first named by Linneaus, back in 1753, it was assigned to genus amaryllis, so the specific epithet was spelled “atamasca”.

In his later work, Linneaus changed the spelling to “atamasco”, which corresponded to the Native American name for the bulb. It remained spelled with an “o” even after it was moved into the genus Zephyranthes in 1821. The problem is that, according to International Nomenclatural rules, the original spelling must take precedent. So, Zephyranthes atamasca is correct. Except…there is an exemption for name conservation, when correcting the name will cause confusion or economic harm. There is currently a well-supported move underfoot to conserve the long-used spelling “atamasco”. And you thought nomenclature was boring!

I’ve long marveled at the diversity within the species, and as an adult have been fortunate to be able to collect offset bulbs from some of the special forms I’ve found.

The top image is a very compact form that we’ve named Zephyranthes ”Milk Goblet’. Below that is one of our larger flowered forms from Alabama that we named Zephyranthes ‘Hugo’. Hugo has 5″ wide flowers in a species where 2.5-3″ wide is typical. Both of these are in full flower now at JLBG.

Zephyranthes atamasco ‘Hugo’

Happened on a Habenaria

Looking particularly good this week is one of the Southeast US (NC to Texas) native water orchids, Habenaria repens. This gem flowers through most of the growing season, and hasn’t slowed down as we enter November. Water spider orchid can grow both as a marginal or as a true aquatic. Our plant is growing in one of our crevice garden seeps. We’re working to get this really cool native propagated and available in the future.

Drinks anyone?

Couldn’t resist this photo of a couple of carpenter bees looking for a drink after a hard day of work, and happened on this enticing stray pitcher full of water. Oh, if they only knew…

A Not so Tropical Giant

Don’t let the name fool you, Hymenocallis caribaea ‘Tropical Giant’, as this North American native spider lily (Northern Mexico) has been hardy in our garden (zone 7b) without any protection since 2000. It’s flowering season has begun here at JLBG. Unlike some hymenocallis which require moist soils, this one will grow darn near anywhere. The new flowers open each evening, releasing a sweet fragrance that attracts night-pollinating moths.

Bog Buttons

Flowering now at JLBG is one of our cute Southeastern natives known as Bog Buttons (Lachnocaulon anceps). The entire family, Eriocaulaceae, has a similar stature with small grass-like foliage, topped by these long antennae-looking structures. In the wild, these can be found in low, often flooded ditches, but they are easily grown in constructed bog gardens. I expect if these were from a more exotic location, more people would grow them. We think they are pretty darn cute.

A Little Garden Hanky-Panky Goin’ On

While exploring the garden yesterday, I was admiring the cardinal flowers, Lobelia cardinalis, in the bog garden. Most of the flowers were red, there were a couple that were more magenta and a few blooming white .

And then several feet away there was one that was a bicolor. Not sure who was the baby-daddy and who was the baby-momma, but we like the results! What happens in the bog garden stays in the bog garden.

Lobelia – bicolor