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Joe Pye Weed

The Quiet Giant—Eutrichium purpureum

black swallowtail, tall perennials, native perennials, butterfly plantsJoe Pye Weed is sometimes called the queen of the meadow, and yet it gets about as much respect as a roadside weed. Great garden designers will tell you it is an unused gem. Travel across the Atlantic, and you will hear loud praises for its colossal impact as a background plant in European perennial borders.

In America, Joe Pye Weed hangs out in right-of-way thickets and along natural stream buffer woodlands. It is really tall for a flowering perennial, growing nine or ten feet! Some people think perennials should grow to only three feet or so, to fit into a refined flower border. Thus, the reputation of a weedy plant. Maybe it is underrated because it is suited to big landscapes and there are not many of them around anymore, or maybe it is its associated with the old Eupatorium family (bonesets and thoroughworts), a group of wayside volunteers of mixed refinement.

What if, you are looking for a strong, tall, midsummer floral background plant that butterflies love, which takes heat and drought, and is native to the eastern two-thirds of the United States? Joe Pye Weed fits the bill. It is the ultimate cottage garden plant, and grows on incredibly strong stems. That means no staking required for a nine-foot flower! It smells like vanilla, and the blooms pop out at nose height. Joe Pye Weed makes a great plant for standing portrait photos. It is easy to grow and a tough survivor during challenging weather—cold, moist, hot, and dry. The flower color is a mauve-pink-lavender mix. If you want a most sophisticated floral arrangement on a grand scale, this is a dramatic choice. The blooms last for several weeks in the garden.

Joe Pye Weed is often listed as a medicinal plant, curing rheumatism, fixing respiratory disorders, as a diuretic, and for calming stomach ailments, but that is what they say about every medicinal plant. My suspicion is the toxic results of ingesting wild plants may simply keep your mind off your original health complaint. No thanks to that!

If you insist on smaller plants, there are some dwarf cultivars available, like ‘Little Joe’. All the varieties like decent soil—no wet feet. It is cold hardy to Canada, which is incredible for a perennial flower.

Celebrate the grand scale of this unfairly shunned, attractive perennial performer. Eupatorium purpureum, as it used to be known, deserves more appreciation. Use it for reliable, strong visual impact.

A Butterfly Garden

Flying Flowers

swallowtail butterfly on zinniaDo you want to be covered up with butterflies? It’s easy! They want nectar and a place to lay eggs. Provide that, and they will come.

The life cycle of a butterfly is, of course, amazing! For a successful garden, avoid squishing any old caterpillar you see. You might be eliminating a Painted Lady or Red Admiral. Using herbicides can also threaten your plans for a natural habitat.

Some favorite plants of butterflies are Parsley, Dill, Fennel, Sassafras trees, and Milkweed. Adding flowers to the favorites mix will bring them fluttering to your site. Butterflies also like rotting organic matter, but that isn’t nearly as attractive! Adding rotten bananas and plastic sponges soaking in sugar water detracts from the setting. You won’t need to push things by creating an obviously unnatural vignette, if you plant the right attractors.

Here’s a list of top butterfly plants, if butterflies were doing the voting:

Staking Plants

Lean on Me

staking plants, floppy perennialsIt would be great if all plants were self-supporting, but some of the most beautiful species strain under the smallest hardship. A brief rain might pull heavy blooms down into the mud or tear leafy branches away from a tightly columnar central leader. Some plants overindulge, pushing all their nutrients into flowers, leaving nothing for strong stems. Some are top-heavy in shape, and gravity simply takes over as they grow.

There are very few perennials that don’t need staking, and this is why they aren’t used on larger commercial landscape designs, with a few exceptions. When you look at photos of beautiful English garden-style perennial beds in magazines, know that those gardens have staff who have individually staked each and every bloom so they are positioned perfectly for the shot. I imagine there may be one or two poor souls lying prostrate during the photo session with one hand tilting a plant just so. The attendant gardeners watch as each stem grows and guide the growth carefully through expensive eyelet stakes or grid netting to artificially produce the perfect floral configuration. If you’ve read Gertrude Jeckyll’s Color Schemes for the Flower Garden, you’ve seen what it takes.

Are you more of a realist with a limited horticultural staff and no money to purchase thousands of Charleston-green-painted metal rods to support your prized perennials? No problem!

Plant Reversion

Has This Ever Happened to You?

reversion, plant reverts back to original, variegation changesA perfectly good variegated Sedum began morphing into a nondescript green plant last week. I knew just what to do. When a plant reverts back to its parent form, you must act right away. As cruel as it may seem, you need to cut out the offending sports-in-reverse before they ruin your special plant.

If you don’t act soon, the new green will quickly overtake and cannibalize the original plant. Delight no more than a second or two at the multi-colored look. The reversion shoots are much more vigorous and fast-growing. If you wait for very long to pull out the rogue stems, there will soon be a disproportionately large amount of them relative to the entire plant. Then, removing them could result in killing it! Act swiftly.

The reversion above took place after just a few days of heavy rain. If left for a month, there would be no variegation left, so I did some minor surgery (see


Installing Annuals

High-maintenance Landscape Jewelry

Ah, color bursts made with flowers! What could be nicer? Public outdoor spaces graced with well-done, seasonal color beds make a local area special and improve the quality of living. They attract happy people, and happy people bring with them economic vitality. Beautiful annual beds make a visual statement about a community. They say an area is up-scale and alive with activity. Flower color is wonderful.

Public floral displays are prolific in places like Canada, New Zealand, England, and France as well as botanical gardens. Why not create more of these in the U.S.? Cost is typically the concern. The biggest cost is skilled maintenance. The second biggest cost is soil preparation. Everything else about it is pretty easy and fairly inexpensive. If your community can afford skilled crews three times a year for installation, someone to regularly water and weed the beds, and you can afford to purchase a good soil mix with slow-release fertilizer to freshen the bedding areas, your local floral displays can be prolific, too.

Asiatic Lilies

Reliable Wow!

orange asiatic lilyI don’t know the name of this dwarf orange Asiatic Lily, but just love it! It is probably a tetraploid hybrid. The upward-facing blooms are incredible. The footprint in the garden is negligible. Next to blues or greens, it is outstanding.

Asiatic Lilies come from bulbs and a reliably hardy most of the time. If you are looking for ways to provide pop in a perennial border, but you don’t have a lot of room, try them. Remove the blooms when spent, but preserve the foliage for a strong bloom next year. This one was purchased at a grocery store, and it has been a delightful surprise performer every year.



A Vine that Just Won’t Quit

wisteria seed podsEnglish Ivy is bad and Chinese Privet is difficult, but the most tenacious invasive plant of them all is Wisteria. Once its roots establish a spot in the ground, it is almost impossible to eliminate it. Spraying with herbicides is relatively ineffective. Thank goodness it doesn’t cover territory as vigorously as Kudzu! It can easily grow to a size that can collapse a sturdy trellis, and will grow trunks the size of trees. My advice to homeowners with a Wisteria problem is to move.

Where I live, the Wisteria grows in every empty lot. They call the streets in my area “the flower streets”, and one of them is named Wisteria Way for good reason. The long, lavender blooms are stunning each spring! So robust is the growth of the vines, they grow up and across the road on power lines and tree limbs.

On a winter walk, I heard popping sounds, and discovered the furry Wisteria seed pods were exploding overhead and dropping to the asphalt by the hundreds. It seemed like I was in the crossfire of tiny cannons. The seed pods are beautiful, furry, long, twisted fingers. The pods curl back as they release the shiny, black seeds. I came back the next day with a grocery bag and gathered up bunches of the felt-like spirals. The vase is my attempt to make something useful to remind me of the experience—walking through an amazing tunnel of bursting seeds.

Finding Plants

Happy Surprises Bring Joy to Gardening

hidden plants, finding plants for free

In our move from our previous home, I hastily dug up anything small enough to carry and plopped those plants wherever I could get a shovel in the ground at the new place. That was seven years ago. Recently, after a whirlwind of emptying moving boxes and work out of town, I have been enjoying some extra time, allowing me to focus on my yard and see things I typically don’t have time to notice. One of the happy surprises is finding lost and forgotten plants—plants that I thought had died—plants that somehow have managed to survive in spite of serious neglect on my part. I have witnessed the resurrection of plants from the old home place!

Tucked among the leaf litter and spreading Liriope grass, I spotted one of my favorites—Geranium maculatum, the Wood/Spotted Geranium, quietly struggling to survive amid the competing foundation shrubs and ground covers. The Wood Geranium is not the same plant as the weedy Geranium dissectum or Geranium carolinianum, Wild Geraniums that litter lawn grass in early spring. This one has flowers that are pretty, big, pale rose-colored blossoms with darker stripes radiating out from the center. It forms a nice mound of interestingly-lobed foliage and blooms.

Some Interesting Seed Companies