Monday, September 19, 2011

ooh that smell . . .

Cestrum nocturnum -- Night-blooming Jessamine
(not "Jasmine" but "Jessamine;" there's a difference...)

Beginning about five days (or, better...nights) after the 6.5” of rain we got from Tropical Storm Lee, Lydia and I were seated in our usual evening positions on the back porch. Suddenly we became overwhelmed by the penetrating perfume of Night-blooming Jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum). What with the droughty summer & all, I guess we had sort of forgotten about the two specimens planted on either side of the front/south side of our house. So dry it was, they hadn't even bothered with making flowers all season.

But on the evening of September 10 . . . BAM! Carried on a bare whiff of southerly breeze, the fragrance crept like soft fingers from Heaven some 65' to the back porch, simultaneously hitting both of us. Oh what a scent:  An ancient perfume, immediately transporting us back to our childhoods, maybe all the way to our grandmothers' dressing tables. Truthfully, there's no good way that I can describe such a magical fragrance in words. . . it's just too fine for that . . . better to smell it, then you'll know exactly what I'm trying to write.

Interestingly, the genus Cestrum comes from the plant family Solanaceae – the Nightshade family – from which comes stuff like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, wolf-berries, horse-nettles, and such; none of which produce bloom-scents that could even remotely be described as “perfumy” or even “penetrating.” You'll notice from the photo that unlike the blooms of tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants, night-blooming jessamine blooms are long and tubular and really hold some scent. Those of you who grow it will also notice that the closer you stick your nose to the bloom, the more pungent – almost acrid – the scent becomes. Its perfume is best-appreciated from a distance; at least 10-15' away at minimum, I'd say.

Night-blooming Jessamine Fruits

Cestrum is a New World tropical/sub-tropical genus containing about 150 species; only a few of which produce perfumy blooms. All Cestrums produce berries. Night-blooming jessamine produces fairly large, white, porcalein-like fruits that birds love. The birds then spread the seeds around, and so(w) spreads the plant. In pre-Katrina New Orleans, Cestrum nocturnum was so prevalent that most gardeners considered it a weed. Katrina's big brackish flood wiped out all of the night-blooming jessamines that it touched, however; and today, I'm sure many New Orleanians are pining away for it. In her fine book, The New Orleans Garden, Charlotte Seidenberg mentions that Cestrum nocturnum, native to the West Indies, has been grown in New Orleans since the 1700s.

This morning (19 Sept) I noticed fresh new blooms on our Sweet Olives. Hoo-Boy. The Jessamine/Sweet Olive mix just might do us in....but what a way to go, non?

For more on Sweet Olive, be sure to check out Gail Barton's recent post ( on her blog.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

tough plants for tough times...


Well it's been a long time coming, now here we are. Been promising this post all summer....

Our climate is changing. Here in southern Louisiana we can expect a hotter and drier climate; indeed, we've already entered into that scenario. Without steady irrigation, our typically lush, tropical gardens will be a thing of the past. Well, tropical, yes; but lush, no. I don't know about you, but I've never been one to water an ornamental garden. Don't have the time nor the inclination. So what to do? Use plants that don't need any supplemental irrigation.

Below is my 'tough plants for tough times' list for Gulf Rim gardens (zones 8-9). These plants are not only drought-tolerant, but flood-tolerant as well...which is good, since we are still prone to occasional deluges (September 3-4, tropical storm Lee for example, dumped 6.5” on our garden; twenty-four hours after which it looked like it hadn't rained at all...). Listed plants are all very long-lived as well. Most will perform beautifully for at least 15 years; and in fact most have lived in our garden for 20 or more years. Lastly, in order to make this list, plants must have BIG aesthetic appeal: long blooming season and/or excellent texture and/or foliage color.

Dwarf Bottlebrush 'Little John'
(or, if you're from New Orleans, "Lil' Jawn")

Dwarf Bottlebrush 'Little John' (Callistemon vinialis) – I believe this is an Australian native – same as the full-sized Callistemon citrinus. Survived last year's exceptionally cold winter (yeah, I know, 'what about global warming, smarty-pants?' Note that a massive high-pressure dome was parked over Alaska all last winter, not only creating one of Alaska's warmer winters on record, but also conveyor-belting arctic air deep into the U.S. interior all the while....) here in horticultural zone 8b/9a. Excellent texture; sea-green foliage hue; blooms early spring – summer. Full-sun. Butterflies/hummingbirds.

typical Bottlebrush bloom

Lantana 'Miss Huff'
a probable L. camara X L. urticoides hybrid

Lantana (Lantana camara/urticoides) – I'm not talking about the dwarfish creeping types (L. montevidensis, etc.) here – though for all I know they may be tough as well – but the naturalized shrub types that have inched their way up into the Louisiana coastal zone from Mexico and the Caribbean. L. camara is the species that old-timers know as “Ham n' Eggs”..... L. urticoides is an orange/red bloomer. Both are awesome for duration of bloom and general bad-ass toughness. Full to half-sun. Butterflies/hummingbirds.

Turk's Cap

Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) – A hibiscus family member native to coastal Louisiana – specifically, in cheniere (live oak-dominated coastal forests). Winter-hardy all the way up to Shreveport. Runs like a Banshee in full sun, so be careful. Perfect for half-shade to bright filtered light, especially around the bases of shade trees, where little else will grow. There, it behaves itself nicely, laying down into a 3-4' groundcover. Butterflies/hummingbirds/songbirds.

Antique Rose 'Caldwell Pink'

'Caldwell Pink' Antique Rose – Amazingly, this 4' X 6' bush rarely if ever needs pruning! It barely even needs dead-heading. It's like the Ever-ready Rabbit, blooming and blooming despite drought or flood. Classed as a 'China' rose, which accounts for its everblooming habit. The only drawback is its lack of fragrance. Full-sun.

Pavonia hastata

Pavonia hastata – Pavonias are hibiscus family members. Over 270 species worldwide, including a couple of natives from the southwestern U.S. where it is commonly known as “rock rose.” P. hastata, however, is from South America. Here along the Gulf Rim it grows to about 4' X 4'. Like shrub lantana and 'Caldwell Pink' rose, it always seems to be in bloom. Should it get unruly, just cut that sucker back to about 18” and it'll straighten up and fly right. Full sun. Oddly, I have not noted much butterfly/hummer activity.

Tropical Sage

The Mighty Salvias – There are about 700 Salvia species worldwide. This is the same genus containing the herb, “sage” (Salvia officinalis). Here in the U.S., ornamental Salvias are among the best hummingbird attractors in the garden. The most beautiful Salvias hail from the mountains of Mexico, Central America, and South America; but one species, called Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) is native to coastal Louisiana. This species is one of the first plants that I'd recommend for a butterfly/hummingbird garden. Try to get native stock if you can. You'll see a number of cultivars offered in the trade. They're OK, but they are short-lived. Native tropical sage is sorta rangy, growing up to 5+ feet; but if you need it shorter, all you have to do is snap its weak stems down to the height you prefer. I've seen it used as a dense groundcover below live oaks, and maintained at 6” height with a weedeater. Native tropical sage will throw a lot of seed over time, developing into gorgeous clumps here and there. It's easy to transplant, easy to dead-head, and easy to weed-out. Blooms constantly. I even remember it blooming in January at our place one year. Shade to full-sun.

Anise Sage

Anise Sage (Salvia guaranitica) comes in a very close second to tropical sage on the “must have” list for butterfly/hummingbird gardens. This South American native blooms consistently spring/summer/fall here in south Louisiana. Does not seed. Shade to full-sun.

Salvia 'Argentine Skies'

Salvia 'Argentine Skies' is basically a powder-blue color form of anise sage. But anise sage makes modest clumps over the years, whereas 'Argentine Skies' runs hard. Use it to fill big spaces. Half-shade to full sun.


Horseherb (Calyptocarpus vialis aka Zexmenia hispidula) – is sometimes listed as a southern U.S. native, but I'm not so sure. As with Turk's cap, tropical sage, and shrub lantana, I believe that horseherb is a New World tropical species that probably got into the wild here on its own (migratory songbirds??). It showed up at our place about 20 years ago, but didn't really spread until after the Big Flood of May 2004. It's a shade-loving perennial groundcover. Lydia's scared of it. I love it...the plant, that is....not the fact that she's scared of it. I find it very easy to weed out of places where we don't want it. Lydia disagrees. We have agreed to disagree on many subjects during our 30+ years together. . .

Basket Grass

Basketgrass (Oplismenus setarius) – is yet another species from the American tropics that has naturalized here in the southern U.S. Are ya'll detecting a pattern here? Tough plants. Naturalized. If they're gonna make it, they've got to really really want to. Anyway, texturally basketgrass is a gorgeous thing. Like horseherb, it's a shade-lover. By the way, when they're in their 'happy place,' both horseherb and basketgrass colonize with enough density to preclude weeds.

Big Bluestem; producing its late-summer
bloom culms

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) – There are quite a few native grasses that make excellent garden plants, and its so sad that so few are used. Remember: grasses impart a “flowing” texture in the garden that few other plants can match. Grasses “finish” sunny gardens, just as ferns “finish” shady gardens. Incorporating grasses and ferns is the mark of a fine garden(er). Color's cool, but texture's tops! When not in bloom, big bluestem has a fine, fountain-type growth habit. Many genetic strains have very cool gray-green foliage and colorful red-yellow joints on their bloom culms.

Dwarf Maiden Grass 'Adiago'
(admittedly, not photographed at its me...)

Dwarf Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio') – Maiden grass is native to Asia and Africa, and one of the most horticulturally-developed genera in the world. Hundreds of M. sinensis cultivars have been developed over the years. A couple of these cultivars have proven to be invasive within U.S. east coast habitats; but not so in south Louisiana. My favorite maiden grass cultivar is 'Adiago,' a dwarf that grows to no more than 3' X 3' excellent “finishing” plant for sunny gardens.

Southern Shield Fern
(the Tropical Sage went ahead & seeded itself in)
Southern Shield Fern (Thelyptris kunthii) – A drought/flood-tolerant fern? Yep! This cosmopolitan species is native not only to Louisiana but also to the entire U.S. Gulf South, West Indies, Mexico, Central America, and down through much of South America! Pale-green – bordering on chartreuse-green – matte-finished fronds contrast beautifully with shinier, darker-green shade-loving companions. Toughest Gulf Rim fern you'll ever meet. Half-sun to full shade.

Friday, September 2, 2011

time of the moth . . .

Five-Spotted Sphinx (photo by Steve Boutte)
Thanx to Monica Boutte for passing along
Steve's fine photos....and for getting me to
thinkin' about moths.

Yeah, I know. You love the butterflies but think moths are sort of creepy. After all, no one has exactly jumped at the chance to create a horror movie about a giant butterfly come to kill us all. Yet enter Mothra(!)....if it wasn't for Godzilla that big crazy nocturnal insect woulda sucked every last one of us up thru its proboscis.

big, powerful fliers; sphinx moths are often mistaken
for some sort of crepuscular hummingbirds
(photo by Steve Boutte)

(Sigh) Anyway, it's moth time down South ya'll. In fact, it's Lepidopteran time, as late-summer/early-fall always hosts the largest and most diverse appearances of both butterflies and moths here along the Gulf Rim.

The first time I visited Charlotte Seidenberg's lovely wildlife garden just a couple of blocks away from the Mississippi River in uptown New Orleans, she couldn't/wouldn't get off the subject of moths. I wanted to talk about birds. She was going on and on about her favorite mothing spots “across the lake” (Ponchartrain) and have I ever seen this moth and that moth. Moth-woman!

diurnal and definitely wasp-like, this Clear-winged Moth
defies moth protocol, but has thus far escaped moth-excommunication
(photo by Bill Fontenot)

By the same token, she immediately gained my respect and admiration for digging such decidedly un-sexy creatures (though Steve Boutte's photos, featured here, surely indicate otherwise). So what I guess I mean is that it's refreshing to hang out with people whose fascination with Nature has taken them farther than the typical “gateway species” such as southern magnolia, flowering dogwood, butterflies, hummers, and songbirds.

back to Steve Boutte's fantasmagoric Five-Spotted Sphinx...
larval form of this species is the much-hated ('cept by thousands of species
of spiders, amphibians, reptiles, and birds) Tomato Hornworm

In her excellent 1995 book, The Wildlife Garden, Charlotte states that “There are 765 species of butterflies in North America, but 10,500 known species of moths!” Huh? So what's the deal, here? That kind of disparity in species diversity indicates that....hmmmm.....moths must be ecologically important. More important than butterflies perhaps. Important as what? Well, as plant pollinators for starters; and as food items for a massive number of creatures from spiders, toads/frogs, small snakes, lizards/skinks to birds, bats and other mammals of all makes and models.

tiny geometrid moths congregate on our bedroom window
(note reflection of some sort of important television
program happening in lower left....)

I love bird ecology – the way that particular bird species situate themselves within particular habitat types; what all they do there, how they do it, and when they do it. My old college buddy Wylie Barrow is a bird ecologist at the National Wetlands Research Center here in Lafayette. We have a mutual fascination regarding which birds eat what foods and when and where they do it. It was after many hours of conversation – and many more hours of Wylie's fieldwork in the cheniere forests along coastal Cameron parish – that we came to a truly cool conclusion regarding migratory songbirds and the food items which are absolutely crucial to their survival as they make their long twice-yearly treks between the temperate and tropical Americas:

Here in coastal Louisiana, roughly the halfway point in the annual migratory route for numerous species of migratory songbirds, the arrival of the bulk of spring-migrating warblers dovetails perfectly with the peak outbreak of geometrid moth larvae (very tiny white/naked caterpillars or “worms”), which the warblers (and other songbirds) attack with gusto. By summer's end, these same geometrids only now adult moths, are out in profusion. In coastal cheneires, these tiny moths roost beneath the leaves of various plants, especially those of giant ragweed, which develops profuse thickets in coastal Louisiana. So guess what? The same warblers and other songbirds, now with offspring in tow and now coursing southward toward the tropics, stop off at the same coastal habitats and now feast on the same moth species – now adults instead of “worms” – utilizing them as a major/crucial food source in the same way that they did with the larvae in the spring.

It's all just so uncannily amazing.

Once you think about it, however, especially from an evolutionary/survival-of-the-fittest perspective, it becomes apparent that those migratory birds which time their stateside arrivals and departures to coincide with geometrid moth outbreaks are the ones that ultimately survive best, passing their now-hardwired sense of migratory timing on to their descendents via DNA. The same scenario holds true for all traveling animals. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are another example. How is it that they know to hold off on their northbound trans-gulf spring migration route until stateside native nectar sources such as red buckeye, eastern coralbean, and trumpet honeysuckle come into bloom? Are they geniuses or something? Have they engineered such solutions via computers and think-tanks and what-have-you?

Nope. More like idiot-savants: they just do what their Creator tells them to do. Creation has never stopped, ya'll. If it did, animals would no longer know what to eat and when and where to eat it. No, the process continues, with new life forms evolving by the the day...really, moment to moment in time.

Self-conscious ever-analyzing humans find such revealations “amazing,” “incredible,” and “genius.”

“Meanwhile,” as Bob Dylan sang, “life goes on all around us.” It's just another day in paradise...

Vine Sphinx
(photo by Steve Boutte)

I don't want to end this post without bragging a lil' more on Charlotte Seidenberg and her talents not only as a naturalist but as a writer as well. She ain't no spring chicken (I know she's older than me, for example...) but in her love for all living things she's more like a kid than an adult. She even looks more like a kid than an adult. She grew up but she never grew out of that innate fascination with Nature that all of us are born with. In demeanor, she's on the shy side – unless she's talking or writing about Nature. Then she becomes a firey preacher: “...I defy you not to become as intrigued as I with indigenous plants and animals...I defy you not to be as fascinated as I with the complexity and beauty of our native insect life....My garden is becoming a place for learning about the natural world. And the more I know the more I want to know...” she writes in the introduction of The Wildlife Garden.

I know she'd be embarrassed if she read this; but she echos the sentiments of so many of us, particularly in the darkening times in which we live today.

Charlotte writes from a first-person perspective, peppering her books with personal stories. That's what makes them so repeatedly readable. But then she also researches her topics to within inches of their lives. Check out her The New Orleans Garden (1990) for example. I know she had to be cross-eyed for at least a few months after all the microfiche she must have perused in order to determine earliest dates of introduction for three centuries' worth of the hundreds of plants entering the garden scene in New Orleans. Ditto for The Wildlife Garden. Read 'em; and I defy you to believe otherwise.

Oh, and . . . Long Live the Moth!