Archive for September, 2010

Purple Beautyberry

The beautiful Purple Beautyberry at the foot
of the driveway at Viette’s.

“Does Viette’s grow Beautyberry?” This was a question my kids’ favorite daycare teacher asked me probably 20 years ago. “I don’t think so – what is beautyberry?” I asked, “Do you know its botanical name?” You see, at Viette’s, we always refer to the plants by their botanical/Latin names and when customers ask for a plant by the common name we sometimes don’t know what plant they are talking about! Well, Beautyberry, I found out later, is the common name for the wonderful shrub, Callicarpa – which we did grow, by the way.

Callicarpa berries in September

Callicarpa berries in September

Callicarpa, a.k.a. beautyberry, is a fantastic though often underused shrub that is covered with colorful berries in the late summer and fall. Callicarpa dichotoma (Purple Beautyberry) is one of my favorites. Vibrant lavender-purple berries line the arching stems of this 3-4 foot deciduous shrub. It’s just beautiful!

Every fall around this time people visiting the gardens begin to ask, “What is that beautiful shrub along the driveway with the bright purple berries?” You can’t miss it! The berries are brilliant! They catch your eye even from a distance and in the late fall, when the leaves drop, the show of vivid purple berries is even more spectacular! The berries persist well into winter and the leafless, fruit laden branches can be used to create attractive natural arrangements for indoors and out.

Callicarpa albiflorus

Callicarpa albiflorus has beautiful
snow white berries.

There is also a beautiful white berried variety, Callicarpa dichotoma var. albifructus, which produces pure white berries. Both the white and purple varieties are outstanding in the garden and in my mind, should be used much more than they are in our gardens. When planted en masse, the effect is stunning!

American Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana, is a taller species that grows up to 6 feet tall. This species also produces attractive lavender-purple berries in the fall.

The berries stand out even more once the leaves drop.

The berries stand out even more
once the leaves drop.

Callicarpa is easy to grow and the berry production is very reliable year after year. Plant them in full sun or light shade and fertilize them with Plant-tone organic fertilizer in early spring and again in the fall. Since they produce flowers and fruit on the current year’s growth, pruning and thinning should be done in the early spring before growth begins. They can be cut back to 8″-12″ from the ground just like Buddleia (Butterfly-bush).

Ilex verticillata berries

Brilliant red berries of the deciduous holly brighten the winter landscape.

There are many other wonderful shrubs like hollies, Euonymus, Nandina, Pyracantha, and Viburnum which bear a wealth of brilliant berries that bring welcome relief from the drabber hues of winter. Besides looking beautiful in the garden, many of these berries are tasty to the birds in your backyard and also make attractive decorations for fall and at holiday time.

Until next time –

Happy Gardening & Happy FALL!

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Can woolly bears really predict the weather?

Can woolly bears really predict the weather?

They’re beginning to cross the road in front of my car as I drive to work in the morning – everyday I see more of them. It has gotten me thinking about these beloved fuzzy caterpillars that children of ALL ages find irresistible. You have to admit – they really are pretty cute!

Most of us have heard the story about how woolly bears can predict the severity of the coming winter by the pattern of the orange and black stripes on their fuzzy bodies . . . but is there any truth in the tale? And how does the story go – does a wide orange band mean a harder winter or is it a narrow orange band and lots of black that predicts the hard winter? I, for one, can never remember!

Well here’s the scoop straight from the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

The longer the middle orange band on the woolly bear, the milder and shorter the winter will be. Conversely, the shorter the orange band, hence the more black on the woolly bear, the longer and harsher the winter will be.

This woolly bear would predict a short, mild winter. Boy was he off on his prediction!

This woolly bear would predict a short, mild winter. Boy was he off on his prediction!

Now, is there any scientific evidence to back this bit of folklore? In a word – no!

Well, I mean not really. The lengths of the orange and black bands are really a function of the age of the caterpillar. Woolly bears are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, a not-very-impressive moth that you might see fluttering around your porch lights at night during the summer. The woolly bear caterpillars molt (shed their skin) several times as they grow and each time they do, the orange band gets longer and the black ends get shorter. So if you see a woolly bear that is mostly orange, that just means it’s older and more mature!


So much for their prediction of the winter of 2009-2010! Our woolly  bears were way off last year!

So much for their prediction of the winter of 2009-2010! Our woolly bears were way off last year!

But here’s some food for thought … what if you have a long, mild fall? The woolly bears will stay active longer and keep growing and molting. The orange band will become wider and wider! Hmmmm, does a mild fall predict a mild winter? And what if winter comes early? A shorter fall season will mean that the woolly bears are younger/haven’t molted as often before they seek shelter for the winter, resulting in a relatively narrow orange band and more black on their fuzzy bodies. Is a harsh winter on the way?

The woolly bears I found around the nursery last year were an epic failure as far as predicting our winter – most had a lot of orange and very little black! A mild winter? Not by a long shot! We had one of the hardest, snowiest winters on record in the Shenandoah Valley!

I wonder if they’ll do any better this year. I haven’t seen any close enough yet to see their color pattern – have you?

Until next time – Happy Gardening and enjoy the beautiful fall weather!

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Ragweed blooms amongst the goldenrod.

If you look carefully, you can see ragweed with its red stems and spikes of greenish flowers blooming in front of the goldenrod. No wonder goldenrod often gets the blame for our allergies!

It’s late summer and your eyes have become itchy and watery. Your nose is running and stuffy because you’ve been sneezing like crazy. There must be some pollen in the air wreaking havoc with your respiratory system! You look around and see many bright yellow goldenrods in the fields and along the roadside so naturally you assume these are the culprits. WRONG!

Goldenrod often gets a bad rap because it blooms (very conspicuously) at the same time as ragweed – the real pollen factory at this time of year.

A ragweed flower

The male ragweed flower produces a lot of pollen in a season!

Ragweed is a common weed that blooms in August and September with spikes of inconspicuous greenish flowers. If you look around where colorful yellow goldenrods are blooming, you will probably also see large stands of ragweed – they are just not as noticeable because they don’t have showy flowers.

Ragweed is a wind pollinated species and, like all plants that rely on wind as a means of pollen dispersal, it produces copious amounts of pollen in the hopes that some of it will eventually make it to a female ragweed flower. Unfortunately, a lot of it makes it into your eyes and nose resulting in those annoying allergies!

The ragweed flower is built for wind pollination. There are no showy flowers. Instead, the spikes of male flowers that form at the tips of the stems lack petals so that nothing gets in the way of the blowing pollen grains – billions of pollen grains! They billow unimpeded from the flowers into the air where they can remain for several days riding on air currents and traveling long distances!

Honey bees love goldenrod and the flowers will often be covered with these busy pollinators.

Honey bees love goldenrod and the flowers will often be covered with these busy pollinators.

Goldenrod on the other hand is insect pollinated and doesn’t produce the great quantities of pollen that ragweed does. And, goldenrod pollen is relatively large and too heavy to travel very far on the wind, so unless you stick your nose in a flower and inhale the pollen, it is unlikely to cause hay fever.

The goldenrods have showy flowers built to attract the insects that pollinate them. Insect pollination is a much more efficient way for plants to get their pollen where it needs to go – to another flower. But this efficiency does come with a cost – after all, you have to pay the “delivery man”! Plants that rely on insect pollinators usually produce sweet treats of nectar and/or protein-packed pollen as a reward for visits to their flowers.

A colorful moth pollinates goldenrod flowers.

This colorful moth is a frequent visitor to goldenrod flowers at the nursery.

In their travels collecting these “treats”, the insects transfer some of the pollen to other flowers resulting in pollination. The plants have to spend extra energy to produce the nectar and higher protein pollen but it pays off in the end because they get successful pollination with the production of much less pollen.

So when your allergies are really bothering you this fall, DON’T blame the goldenrod!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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