Home Happenings

While I was in New York’s Hudson River Valley, a couple of exciting things happened here at home.

In the category of flora, the first spike of cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) came into bloom. The species epithet–discolor–is Latin, meaning “two colors,” and refers to the wintergreen, summer-deciduous foliage. A single leaf, green on top and magenta purple underneath, arises from a small corm in autumn. Foliage wanes in late spring and by the time the flower spike begins to appear in July, the leaf is long gone.

Tipularia discolor

Tipularia discolor

A native perennial, the orchid is common in neighboring gardens but was absent from my woodland, probably because of the rampant English ivy (now removed). Lucky for me, a friend gave me a generous clump containing many corms from her nearby farm.

Individual purplish-green flowers are about one-half inch wide. Sepals and petals are narrow, as is the lip, which narrows into a crook at its tip. The column is bright green. A long spur, which accounts for the common name, extends from the back of the bloom.

Individual flower of Tipularia discolor.

Individual flower of Tipularia discolor.

According to Tim Spira (Clemson University), the flowers are pollinated by night-flying moths. In his book, Wildflowers & Plant Communities, Tim notes, “As a moth inserts its head into the flower to obtain nectar, a pollinium (a tiny ball of pollen) is attached to the moth’s eye and may inadvertently be deposited on the stigma of another flower. Amazingly, the deposition of pollinia on insect eyes is a common mode of pollen transfer in temperate orchids.”

In the category of fauna, my husband discovered a black snake coiled on a gutter of our front porch on Monday morning.

Black snake, view with head down.

Black snake, view with head down.

Although the photos aren’t well focused, you can clearly distinguish its dark form, with head down, taking stock of the situation. From the rear view, a faint diamond pattern can be detected across its midsection, while its darker tail loops downward. From the size of the hump in its midsection, the snake may have been resting after a meal. If so, I hope its breakfast was a chipmunk!

Black snake, back view.

Black snake, back view.

Although I don’t like to get too close, black snakes are welcome here because they’re not aggressive and are reputed to keep the venomous copperheads at bay. This one is an old friend. When I photographed it in April 2013, it was sitting pretty in an azalea in the woodland garden.

Black snake, spring 2013.

Black snake, spring 2013.

The Best of Italy

Summer is flying by. I can hardly believe it’s been more than a month since I returned from Italy, but this year’s initial tour still lives large in my mind. Before I turn the page to the next adventure, here’s a quick look back at a superb trip.

The tour included visits to seven stunning gardens…

Villa Melzi on Lake Como, view of the Japanese Garden.

Villa Melzi on Lake Como, view of the Japanese Garden.

Villa Balbianello on Lake Como.

Villa Balbianello on Lake Como.

Villa Borromeo on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore.

Villa Borromeo on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore.

Villa Taranto near Lake Maggiore.

Villa Taranto near Lake Maggiore.

Villa Gamberaia in Settignano.

Villa Gamberaia in Settignano.

Villa Le Balze in Fiesole.

Villa Le Balze in Fiesole.

Marlia Villa Reale (home of Napoleon's sister Elsa) near Lucca.

Marlia Villa Reale (home of Napoleon’s sister Elsa) near Lucca.

Giardini della Landriana near Torre San Lorenzo.

Giardini della Landriana near Torre San Lorenzo.

Villa d'Este in Tivoli.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli.

Plus, these hightlights…

Best meal:  Locanda Dell'Isola Ristorante on Isola Comacina, Lake Como.

Best meal: Locanda Dell’Isola Ristorante on Isola Comacina, Lake Como.

Best day trip:  Lucca!  My new favorite destination!

Best day trip: Lucca! My new favorite destination!

Best Cathedral:  Duomo di Siena.

Best Cathedral: Duomo di Siena.

Best non-garden excursion:  Lunch and wine tasting at Fattoria del Colle.

Best non-garden excursion: Lunch and wine tasting at Fattoria del Colle.

Best overall day:  boat tour of Lake Como.

Best overall day: boat tour of Lake Como.

To see more photos of Italy, click here to visit my Flickr page.

Tomorrow, I’ll be up before dawn to begin Chapter Two, touring the Hudson River Valley with more than 30 enthusiastic gardeners from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Michigan.

If you plan to visit either of these destinations in the future, feel free to make a copy of the Hortitopia itinerary for reference. Just look here.

Wordy Wednesday–July 16, 2014

I’m a big fan of Wordless Wednesday, but feel you deserve more this week since a horrendous summer cold coupled with pressing work deadlines have curtailed my blogging.

So, here is the photo I planned to post without explanation…but with its backstory.

Escargot anyone?

Escargot anyone?

Mr. Snail, a resident of Highlands, North Carolina, was discovered last Friday on an early-morning prowl. When examining the photo later, I was fascinated by the detail captured by the camera that’s not seen by the eye. And though I’m certainly no expert, this one looks very much like the type that is served as escargot.

I was in Highlands, on a high plateau of the Southern Appalachian Mountains (4,118-feet elevation), for the annual garden tour of Mountains in Bloom, an event which also features a flower show, speaker program, and luncheon. Known for its cool summers (averaging 78 F in July) and abundant rainfall (100 inches annually), the Highlands community is a summer mecca for those who live in much hotter areas of our region, such as Atlanta.

This year’s tour featured four homes and gardens. Since the homes were also open this year, I believe there was less of an emphasis on the gardens. But all were enjoyable and one garden, in particular, caught my fancy. Built in 2009, the brochure noted the homeowners assisted in the garden’s design, which showcases a stream and pond crossed by a rustic bridge on sloping terrain.

From the garage towards the front door.

From the garage towards the front door.

The lower garden with pond.

The lower garden with pond.

From the front door towards the garage.

From the front door towards the garage.

View of the bridge and upper garden from the home's front door.

View of the bridge and upper garden from the home’s front door.

I was also awed by the home’s back porch. I have porches on my mind these days, since I’m hoping to add a new one to my own house soon. What do you think of this one?

Outdoor living at its best!

Outdoor living at its best!

Although the design, with a bump out at either end, wouldn’t suit my home, it provides food for thought. And just look at this view!

Overlooking the Highlands plateau.

Overlooking the Highlands plateau.

Spectacular!

Land of Cotton

Over the holiday weekend I traveled to southeastern Virginia to visit family and was struck by the number of cotton fields in the area I once called home, including the one below that belongs to my step-father and mother and is rented to a large-scale farmer who now rotates several crops. When I grew up here in the 1970s, the primary crop cultivated in this region was peanuts.

Cotton field in rural Virginia.

Cotton field in rural Virginia.

Cotton is tropical in origin but is most successfully cultivated in temperate climates with adequate rainfall. The plant belongs to the genus Gossypium of the family Malvaceae (mallow); the same family as hollyhock, okra, and hibiscus. Nearly all commercial cotton grown in the U.S. is G. hirsutum, which is used to produce both fiber and oil.

Grown from seeds that germinate in 5 to 10 days, the plant puts tremendous energy into establishing a tap root that grows to 10-inches deep in just a couple weeks. The flower bud that first appears on the plant is called a “square,” though it is enclosed by three bracts. The photo below shows a pair of squares on the shrub-like plant which will eventually produce 12 to 16 fruiting branches.

Cotton "square."

Cotton “square.”

Since I’ve never examined young cotton closely, I was interested to see the newly-formed flower buds that will open within three weeks.

Flower bud of Gossypium hirsutum.

Flower bud of Gossypium hirsutum.

As opportunity arises through the summer, I’ll show you how the cotton progresses.

Awed by Saguaro

Recently, I traveled to the Sonoran Desert and met a giant, namely Carnegiea gigantea, better known as the saguaro cactus. One of the defining plants of the region, the saguaro (pronounced sah-wah-ro) typically grows to 40-feet tall (though some are nearly twice this size) and can swell and shrink in girth by 25% depending on available moisture.

Saguaro cactus with several nesting cavities.

Saguaro cactus with several nesting cavities.

An up-close view shows the dark spines that radiate from areoles on vertical ribs. The spines, roughly 2-inches long, are sturdy enough for use as needles.

Spines of the saguaro.

Spines of the saguaro.

White flowers, which bloom on cool spring nights and are pollinated by bats, are said to have an overwhelming fragrance similar to overripe melons. Summer fruits, filled with thousands of seeds, are a favorite of birds.

White-winged dove feasting on saguaro fruits.

White-winged dove feasting on saguaro fruits.

The cactus is also used for roosting and nesting by several species of birds, including the Gila woodpecker and the cactus wren. The cactus wren, easily distinguished by its white eye stripe, is the largest of its genus and is known to destroy the nests and eggs of other birds to reduce competition. The wren survives without freestanding water by extracting moisture from cactus pulp and other sources.

Cactus wren on Carnegiea gigantea.

Cactus wren on Carnegiea gigantea.

Interestingly, the genus name of the saguaro, Carnegiea, is in honor of philanthropist Andrew Carnegie whose Carnegie Institution established the Desert Botanical Laboratory in Tucson in 1903. In its early days, the facility and staff were key contributors to what is now known as the science of ecology.

The purpose of my 10-day trip to Arizona and stay at the Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler (near Phoenix) was a series of meetings of GFWC, including the Annual Meeting, so free time was scarce. Nonetheless, I was able to squeeze in two early-morning hikes for a bit of exploration.

Landscape of native plants around the resort's convention center.

Landscape of native plants around the resort’s convention center.

The resort, carefully and beautifully landscaped with native plants and showcasing a number of water features not typically found in the desert, was an oasis for wildlife. In addition to birds, I also saw a large number of round-tailed ground squirrels, desert cottontails, and lizards. Thankfully, I did not find any of the 13 species of rattlesnakes.

Desert cottontail

Desert cottontail

Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Arizona.

Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Arizona.