In the Garden:
Middle South
April, 2012
Regional Report

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Nearly overrun by briars and English ivy, Sweet Betsy trillium and mayapples (background right), have managed to persist in the woodland area of the garden.

A Place for Wildflowers

The first spring show of woody ornamentals in our region was early and brief this year. The extraordinary weather, which warmed quickly and remained well above normal for nearly a month, condensed the bloom period so that many trees and shrubs flowered together in a short period of time. In my neck of the woods, we were already into spring's lull when Easter rolled around; dogwoods and azaleas had gone by, while hydrangeas and gardenias were just beginning to form their flower buds.

I was as gob-smacked as anyone else by these early blooms, but my mind and hands have been engaged elsewhere in the last weeks. My new garden, which includes nearly a half-acre of woodland stretching from the confined backyard to the banks of the Reedy River, is a treasure trove of early-blooming native wildflowers, especially spring ephemerals.

These unique wildflowers have a short above-ground life, developing their aerial parts, such as stems, leaves, and flowers, as soon as lengthening days and more intense sunshine begin to warm the soil. They quickly bloom, set seed, and then disappear.

The challenge for these plants is in completing their reproductive cycle before the trees block the sunlight with a canopy of leaves. In the Middle South, spring ephemerals begin to bloom in March, though those on shady north-facing slopes will open later than those on sunny south-facing ones. Even still, most all will be gone within a few months.

The most common ephemeral in my woodland is Trillium cuneatum, commonly called Sweet Betsy or purple toadshade. This trillium is the largest of the eastern sessile-flowered types, with three strongly mottled leaves and three erect petals that are usually maroon-purple, but may also be green or yellow. While many of the plants flower, relatively few set fruit. Those that fail die-back within a few weeks, while the successful ones will persist until June or July. Seeds are dispersed by both ants and yellow jackets, which are attracted to a lipid-rich food body (elaiosome) attached to the seed coat.

The garden also includes several areas of Podophyllum peltatum, known as mayapple, which will form dense patches on the forest floor when happy. This plant has a stalk which supports one or two circular, umbrella-like leaves with deeply divided lobes. If the plant's stem branches so that it supports two leaves, a single flower will from at the junction of the leafstalk. The flower produces a yellow, egg-shaped berry that is eaten by a number of small mammals and the eastern box turtle. While the fruits are edible, all other parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans.

Ephemerals are not the only notable native plants I've found in my woodland. There is a large group of Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), as well as sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), wild hydrangea (H. radiata), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), wild geranium (G. maculatum), cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and others.

Though the reclamation of the native habitat will take many years, perhaps even a decade or more, a start has been made. In January, well before the emergence of wildflowers, the woodland was cleared of most of its invasive trees and shrubs, including mimosa, princess tree, Chinese privet, elaeagnus, and many others. There has also been some progress towards removing invasive ground covers such as English ivy and vinca.

Unfortunately, the arrival of warm weather revealed an even more insidious plant pest, Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), or what some call "killer bamboo" for its ability to displace native plants by vigorous growth and colonization.

Japanese knotweed was brought to North America for ornamental use in the late 1800s and soon took on a life of its own, independent of its unsuspecting patrons. The most common habitat for this dangerous invasive is sunny, moist areas, such as the banks of creeks and rivers. It spreads vegetatively by spreading or fragmentation of its rhizomes, and it also grows from seeds, which are produced in large numbers and easily dispersed by wind and water.

Quite a bit of information can be found on the Internet about the eradication of Japanese knotweed, but it all points to the fact that there is no silver bullet. Instead, the best chance of freeing our landscape of this invasive plant will be a multipronged attack of cutting, spraying and digging, and perhaps even burning.

Despite the tremendous effort required, the work in the woodland to eradicate invasive plants and preserve the native ones has quickly become the most engaging part of my gardening life. After decades of experience with common garden ornamentals, I'm learning about hundreds of native and naturalized plants, and the communities they live in. And I believe what I'm doing has value, not just for beautification, but also for conservation.

In a small way, I'm doing my part to save the world. One wildflower at a time.

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