mary snoddy

Crocosmias Glow In The Heat

When the “feels like” temperatures are in triple digits, many annuals and perennials slow down or even stop blooming. This makes us appreciate those stalwarts that bloom through the hottest days of the year. One of these is Crocosmia (pronounced Crow-KAHZ-mee-ah).

Crocosmia leaves resemble gladiola or Siberian Iris. The blooms occur at the topmost part of a wiry stem. They last a long time as cut flowers. Blooms are most often red (‘Lucifer’ cultivar) or orange, occasionally yellow. Hummingbirds flock to all shades. They look especially great when paired with blue Salvia.

Crocosmia, sometimes called Montbretia, is a type of bulb known as a corm. Corms are much smaller than true bulbs like tulips or daffodils. They create a new bulb each year to sustain them through cold weather. These storage units stack themselves on top of each other, gradually developing into a loose chain, like a sleeve of Ritz crackers, only much smaller. The bond joining the corms is not strong, so they break apart when gardeners attempt to dig them up to relocate them. The corms left behind sprout into new plants, leading gardeners believe that they spread to the point of invasiveness.

Crocosmias are hardy in zones 6 to 10. They look best when planted in groups of 10 or more. Blooming is heaviest when the clumps of bulbs are divided every three years or so. Because they reproduce readily, many gardeners will be happy to share their divisions. They should be planted in full sun to light shade, in slightly acidic soil. Crocosmias are not browsed by deer or rabbits, and are usually ignored by slugs. A winner!

Orange Crocosmia glow when backlit by sunshine.

Orange Crocosmia glow when backlit by sunshine.

Vitex - A summer-blooming beauty

I receive a few phone calls every year from people who want me to identify “that tree with purple blooms, looks like a lilac.” That beauty, my friends, is Vitex agnus-castus, commonly called “Chaste tree.” Vitex can be described as a large deciduous shrub or a small tree. Cold-hardy from zone 7b to 11, Vitex tolerates any type of soil and is very drought tolerant once established. They will not survive boggy soils, so err on the side of less irrigation rather than more.

Vitex blooms smell sweet and their five-fingered leaves (resemble marijuana) have a pleasant sage-like fragrance too. The odor means that deer usually leave it alone.

Vitex forms a multi-stemmed tree but can be pruned to a single trunk if the gardener is so inclined. The lavender blooms appear at the ends of branches and point upward, making them look like a cousin to Clethra. Our region is becoming saturated with Crape Myrtles. I love the Crapes, but wish that more people would plant Vitex because of its benefit to pollinators. Butterflies and bees flock to the blooms. They are frequently planted near beehives to increase honey production. There is no fall color to mention, but the loose, rounded crowns have a special charm. They are quick growers, reaching a mature height of 25 feet. Plants thrive in heat, in full sun or part shade. I think they look best as an under story tree, in the partial shade cast by larger trees. A neighboring town used them in the central median plantings along a major highway, which confirms their hardy nature.

The Vitex in the Mary Snoddy garden is at least fifty years old, maybe more. It is starting to show the effects of old age, with a few branches dying here and there. When it reaches the end of its life, I plan to replace it with another specimen of the same type. ‘Shoal Creek’ has the typical lavender bloom, but ‘Alba’ is white and ‘Rosea’ has pink flowers. Several blue cultivars are available, and so are dwarf forms.

I was surprised to read that Vitex is considered invasive in certain areas of the Carolinas and several southwestern states. I have not seen that in my own garden, nor have I seen them proliferate in ungroomed areas.

If Vitex has a drawback, it is that the limbs tend to droop with age. While graceful, this creates difficulty in lawnmowing nearby. The thin bark is easily damaged by string trimmers. Surround them with a ground cover to eliminate the need to prune low-hanging limbs. A grass-like ground cover like Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon) tolerates shade cast by the tree and has the added advantage of absorbing the fine leaves shed in fall. No raking – Yay!

Bumblebees buzzing around the blooms of  Vitex angus-caste.

Bumblebees buzzing around the blooms of Vitex angus-caste.

A mature Vitex.

A mature Vitex.

Wonderful Weigela

Weigela is one of those shrubs that puts on a heart-stopping bloom display in the spring, then fades into obscurity the rest of the year. Mature shrub sizes vary from two feet to ten feet. They don’t mind acidic clay soil, and will tolerate limited drought once established. They prefer morning sun and afternoon shade. Weigela florida sounds like they are Florida natives, but they hale from Japan, Korea and North China.

Most funnel-shaped flowers are white or pink with a darker pink reverse. The blooms occur the entire length of the stem, so the pink buds are seen along with the white blooms. I have seen true red and purple varieties offered in catalogs, but have not found them in local nurseries. All colors are loved by hummingbirds and bumblebees. One of my favorites is ‘Variegata,’ which has white edged leaves, making it pretty even when not in bloom. ‘Wine and Roses’ cultivar has a burgundy leaf and a dark pink bloom. ‘My Monet’ has variegated pink and white leaves, pink blooms, and is dwarf (no more than two feet tall) which makes it easy to incorporate into a mixed border.

This deciduous shrub is round and somewhat loose. There is no fall color. The branches of a mature specimen arch similar to Forsythia. Through experimentation in the Mary Snoddy garden, I have found that the shrub looks best if about one-third of the branches are cut back hard (half their original length) immediately after bloom. This forces new growth. Heaviest blooms occur on the youngest stems. I follow the hard pruning with an overall shaping, to restrict size. If pruning is done mid-summer or later, there will be little to no bloom the following spring.

Weigela grows in zone 4 to 8. The further south, the greater the need for a little shade during the hottest part of the day. Deer think they are delicious, so site them away from easily accessed areas. (We all know that deer will take a bus and climb a ladder to reach something they find tasty.)

The name is pronounced wye-JEE-lah. There is not an “i” in the last syllable, so it is not wye-JEEL-yah.

Rampant Wisteria

In my part of the southeast, a purple haze of Wisteria blooms contrasts with the tender green of emerging tree leaves. In the woodlands behind my home, Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) has climbed to the tops of several trees. Other trees are endangered by their strangling vines. Make no mistake – this is one VIGOROUS vine.

I feel sad when I see an unknowing gardener plant a Wisteria on a wooden or wire trellis. It does not take long before its weight will crush the trellis. Last year, I watched a vine collapse the porch of an unoccupied home in our town. In a matter of weeks, tendrils came through the wooden siding and then through the second floor windows. It was like something out of a horror movie. Wisteria is not as widespread as The Vine That Ate The South (Kudzu) but it is much harder to destroy. I have been struggling to eradicate one planted on our property, using increasingly nasty herbicides, something I normally avoid. Just when I think I’ve been successful, a baby vine springs through the turf some thirty feet away. Sigh…

The deciduous vines are hardy in zones 5-8. They grow to 40 feet or more and bloom best in full sun. The 4-6 inch velvety seed pods are shaped like violins. When dry, the pods pop and eject the lima bean-like seeds, often shooting them ten feet or more. The seeds are toxic, so wildlife rarely spread them around. Instead the plants spread by roots, by stems, or by self-spread seeds. A less vigorous cultivar, ‘Amethyst Mist’ is more easily restrained and looks particularly beautiful when trained to a tree form. It is worth seeking out.

Wisteria is easy to admire. The large clusters of purple and lavender blooms are beautiful. The shape of the bloom resembles a pea blossom, to which the plant is related. Both are in the family Leguminosae. Some people think their sweet fragrance resembles grape KoolAid. The white variety is harder to find but is reputed to be more fragrant.

American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) is less vigorous than Chinese Wisteria, but it still requires a twice yearly pruning to keep it under control. It is also less fragrant. Both Ameircan and Chinese vines must have a level of maturity (up to ten years) before they bloom, which can be a frustrating wait.

Despite all the warnings about its rampant growth, it is difficult to resist the lure of those beautiful purple blooms. Plant if you dare, but DO NOT let them anywhere close to your sewer or septic systems. The roots seek water and will cause plumbing problems.

A close view of Wisteria bloom cluster.

A close view of Wisteria bloom cluster.

Vine imitating a boa constrictor, slowly squeezing life out of the tree it is climbing.

Vine imitating a boa constrictor, slowly squeezing life out of the tree it is climbing.

This photo was taken from my car window as I drove down a major thoroughfare. A planted vine has escaped cultivation and spread through the surrounding area.

This photo was taken from my car window as I drove down a major thoroughfare. A planted vine has escaped cultivation and spread through the surrounding area.

Bloom cluster.

Bloom cluster.

A Country Drive

I am deviating from horticultural topics today. Allow me to share a drive I took last week into the South Carolina countryside.

As I left my normal freeway route for two lane, tar and gravel country roads, I switched off the blaring radio to enjoy the absence of traffic noise and train whistles. Fields of unrestrained kudzu blanketed the landscape like a layer of green lava. Pine trees replaced the skyline of industrial factories. Former home sites were apparent by their remaining brick or stone chimneys, surrounded by huge oak trees. For some, remnants of smoke stains told the story of their demise.

Elegant mansions sat cheek-by-jowl with clusters of mobile homes. If you are a native southerner, you understand that the well-tended ones are called mobile homes, while those with washing machines in the front yard and old cars perched on concrete blocks are called trailers. Wide strips of aluminum were nailed around pecan tree trunks to outwit hungry squirrels. American flags flew in front yards. By instinct, you know that if you bad mouth the USA in this part of the world, you’ll be escorted to your car at the end of a shotgun barrel.

Between towns, an abandoned fire observation deck towered over the fields. There were no electric fences, just miles of barb wire around pastures of cows, goats, donkeys. The only way to tell the identity of each community was to see painted signs proclaiming, “The churches of (town) welcome you,” along with a listing of the institutions concerned about your hereafter destination. Along the roadsides, sourwood trees (the first to color up in the fall) were starting to show a hint of the bright burgundy to come. Staghorn sumac had already shed its leaves, but it waved red seed clusters that looked like horns. In the ditches, yellow goldenrod, perennial blue ageratum, wild asters and white sneezeweed painted a scene worthy of an Old Master. Indeed, this landscape was styled by the oldest Master of all. The peace of the idyllic scene was briefly interrupted when our new travel mapping software announced, “Bear left in 100 yards, then continue for 4,386,284 miles.” I wondered what waypoints my husband had entered. Planet Mars, maybe? We switched it off.

Older homes were built of wood. Most had wide, open porches and tin roofs – the sheet tin of years gone by, not the coated, maintenance-free standing seam type sold today. An unpainted barn or outbuildings stood behind most, and small gardens for home-kitchen use were in front of the houses not occupied by farmers. Country people follow the weather, so they knew that Hurricane Michael might bring torrential rains. As a precaution, sweet potatoes had been unearthed from the heavy clay soil. They were curing (drying) in the sun so they could be stored all winter instead of rotting. Every house had a nearby woodpile. There were no gas logs in these fireplaces. It will be years before natural gas pipelines run through these rural communities, if ever.

We stopped once so that I could snap a photo of a persimmon tree loaded with fruit. Now that I am older, I know that the fruit of a wild persimmon is inedible until touched by frost. As the youngest of all my cousins at a family reunion many years ago, I was duped into biting into a green one. I ignored my grandmother Brown’s caution that, “a green ’simmon will turn your mouth wrong-side-out, child.” She was correct. (Think of the character Arseface in AMC’s Preacher series.)

The sight that touched my very soul was the fields of fresh cut hay -- not the square bales that people buy at Home Depot to use with pumpkins as fall décor. These were the giant round bales used to feed livestock throughout winter. Made me feel proud to be American.

Abandoned fire observation tower. At least I hope it was abandoned, since the platform looks shaky.

Abandoned fire observation tower. At least I hope it was abandoned, since the platform looks shaky.

Native persimmon,  Diospyros virginiana . Also known as Possum Apples, since opossums love to eat the fallen fruit.

Native persimmon, Diospyros virginiana. Also known as Possum Apples, since opossums love to eat the fallen fruit.

Round hay bales

Round hay bales

It's Four O'Clock Somewhere

There are a few flowers that bloom on a working person’s schedule. That is, they keep their petals closed in a tight nap during the normal 9-to-5 workday, then as you arrive home at the end of the day they decide to strut their stuff. One of my favorite night bloomers is the old-fashioned Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa).  The dime-sized blooms open late afternoon and will remain open until 10am or so. You can find these in solid colors (magenta, yellow, white, red) but my favorites are the “broken colors” with two colors of flowers on the same plant and sometimes even on the same bloom.

Four O’Clocks are easily started from seeds. The seeds are large, about the size of BB’s, and are toxic if eaten. During their first year, Four O’Clocks form an underground tuber similar to Dahlias. Freezing weather kills the plant but the tuber stays alive underground and will send up a new plant every year thereafter in Zones 7 and warmer. You should cut off the frost-dead stems at ground level before spring arrives.

If you notice the leaves becoming pale around mid-season, apply liquid fertilizer. They will green up again in a day or two. In the Mary Snoddy garden, the white variety always gets taller (48") than the other colors (28-36"). I’m not sure why. Occasionally a harsh thunderstorm knocks the plants over. When that happens, I use electric hedge trimmers to apply a serious pruning. The plants rebound and will be blooming again in two-three weeks.

The plants are heat and drought tolerant. They are happy in full sun or part sun. The flowers have a distinct pleasant fragrance, almost like soap. Best part of all: they are deer resistant and not troubled by diseases.