In the Garden:
Middle South
August, 2009
Regional Report

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Planted by a bird, this brown-eyed Susan was a mystery plant for several weeks.

Unexpected Pleasures

There are many surprises in gardening and thank goodness for 'em. That's were the fun is, more often than not.

Take the weed I found growing in the cottage garden early this summer. Tucked behind a crinum lily and snuggled among the branches of a gold-leaved Hinoki cypress, it looked like any green-leaved plant you might see growing along the roadside, bolting for the sun and slightly bedraggled.

There was something about it, however, that made me pause before I ripped its roots from the carefully enriched soil. Had I seen it before? Or, was it just a fleeting spirt of adventure that urged clemency for the interloper? I truly don't remember.

When I noticed it again weeks later, it had doubled its height to more than 4 feet tall and tiny flower buds had formed on the tips of its stems. From then on I kept a close eye and as soon as golden rays began to sprout from a center cone I knew it was a rudbeckia.

But not the yellow coneflower 'Goldsturm' (R. fulgida), which has seeded itself throughout the cottage garden and even appears faithfully in cracks of the sidewalks. Widely regarded as the best of its kind, with masses of flowers that bloom on 2- to 3-foot stems from July to October, this cultivar is nearly a thug in my garden.

Though not a plant expert, even I could see the unknown species was something different all together. It was taller, more rangy and open, and some leaves were deeply lobed. The flowers were smaller, petals were rounded rather than pointed, and its stems were russet, not green.

After consulting numerous plant encyclopedias and savvy gardening friends, I determined my weed is the brown-eyed Susan (R. triloba), a native species that grows in meadows and along roadsides throughout the Middle South.

As the seeds of both the yellow coneflower and the brown-eyed Susan have begun to dry in the heat of late summer, tiny goldfinches have flocked to the plants. Though these birds live throughout the year in my garden, my heart still skips a beat when I find them swaying atop the brightly-hued flowers, rustling a meal among the stiff cones.

Last December, after the leaves had fallen from a river birch tree that's just a hop, skip, and jump away from the cottage garden, I spied what I thought was an ugly web in a high crotch. After the mass was dislodged, however, I discovered it was a tidy nest no more than 3-inches in diameter.

It was a goldfinch nest, made with hardwood mulch collected from garden beds and lined with coconut fibers stolen from hanging baskets on the front porch. Most interesting of all, either spider or caterpillar web had been used to securely weave its strands together and bind all to the paper-like bark of the tree.

Now kept snug in a shoe box with the nests of a Carolina wren and a robin, the tiny goldfinch nest is one of my greatest treasures. When scout troops or other groups of children visit the garden, I display these tiny homes and point out how each bird uses different building materials and construction techniques.

In all likelihood it was a goldfinch that brought the brown-eyed Susan to my garden, giving me the chance to see it up close, rather than along a county road at 55 miles an hour. It is a beautiful plant, more lacy and graceful to my eye than the attention-getting 'Goldsturm.'

How surprising, or perhaps not, that once we see and know the wonders of nature, to discover them even more captivating than our own improvements.


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