Stop and smell the clethra

The clethra is blooming now in Rhode Island. Commonly known as summersweet or spice bush, Clethra Alnifolia is a lovely native shrub that grows in sun or partial shade, in wooded and semi wooded areas. It is hardy in Zones 3 to 9 and prefers moist, slightly acid soil.

I have a great fondness for this shrub and for its wonderful fragrance in particular, so I was happy to see that it was growing on the property when we bought our house last summer. Just to make it even more appealing, it also attracts pollinators like hummingbirds and bees AND turns a lovely orange color in the fall.

Here’s what the entire shrub looks like. I guess this one is about 15 feet tall.

There are all kinds of tips online about when to prune clethra and how to care for it in general. My approach is to leave it the heck alone.

I brought a few stems inside recently, and added ferns and a couple of sprigs of fennel. Here’s the bouquet on my dining table. I love how it looks and the scent is fantastic.

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Look what I found!

We were hiking the Zealand Falls trail in New Hampshire and this plant, with its bright pinkish-purple flowers, caught my eye. I stopped to look at it closely, and realized that it was an orchid. Regular readers of Digging RI will recall that I grow orchids, and I have even attended a talk on native orchids, but I still needed help identifying this one.

A friend sent a photo of the plant to a very useful website, Garden Compass, where experts will ID plants and plant diseases for free.

Here’s what they told me about this stunning orchid, which is: Platanthera psyches.

“Commonly called Lesser purple fringed orchid or Small purple-fringed orchid. It is a terrestrial orchid from the genus Platanthera. Native to North america from from eastern Canada to the east-central and northeastern United States (Great Lakes Region, Appalachian Mountains, and New England). The specie name “psycodes” means butterfly-like, in reference to the ‘winged’ flower shape. A plant of wet habitats where they share it with sedges, sphagnum bogs, cedar or Alder swamps and along stream edges or the moist edges of coniferous forests. Its range is being pushed northwards as global temperatures warm. Often confused with Platanthera grandiflora with similarly colored but larger flowers. “P. grandiflora” has a much more restricted range and where the two species do overlap in range, “P. grandiflora” typically blooming from late June through early July while “P. psycodes” blooms from late July through early August.”

There were several  of these orchids scattered throughout the marshy area where I spotted the first one. They were an unexpected and lovely discovery on the trail.



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Cool container combo

This is my bronze fennel in flower – the one that fed the black swallowtail caterpillar for a week or so. I planted it in a container with some mini dahlias, which also have clear yellow blooms.

Here’s a look at the dahlias. The container, which looks like real concrete and is, in my opinion, a perfect color and a classic design, came from Marshalls – $19.00. I should have bought more of those. It’s light as a feather, too.

Back to the PLANTS. The fennel is about three feet tall now, having fully recovered from the swallowtail predation. It needs to be staked, because it leans toward the sun and tends to get a bit off center. I will leave you with a last look.

I won’t be posting for a couple of weeks, but I’ll be back with more  stories. That container! OMG!



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We have liftoff!

This is the concluding chapter of the metamorphosis saga, in which  a black swallowtail caterpillar hitchhiked from the nursery to our home on a fennel plant. I watched the caterpillar grow, and pupate, and finally, emerge.

The backstory: As I walked by the chrysalis one morning early last week, I touched it gently. To my immense surprise, it reacted almost violently with a series of jerky movements. (I had no idea they did that.) I went to work and when I returned, I saw that it had opened.

Such a tiny opening! I immediately started looking for the butterfly, and there it was, drying its wings on the lawn.

End of saga. I was lucky to be able to follow it from beginning to end.

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Odds and ends

I am still waiting for the black swallowtail caterpillar to emerge. It should be any day now.

In the meantime,  check out the destructive and most annoying gypsy moth caterpillars, killed by Entomophaga maimaiga, a fungus that needs rain to work. And we have had just the right amount of rain for it to get the job done. The caterpillars hang upside down, often forming v shapes, when they are dead. Now our trees can start to recover. Woo Hoo!

And on a totally unrelated topic, horseshoe crab mating season is nearly over, but I had a chance to see some late- mating crabs on a recent visit to Napatree Point, in Westerly, R.I. While still attached, they swam up into the shallow water, allowing us to get good long looks at them.

The female on the bottom is older than eight years, because she has stopped molting, and organisms like barnacles are beginning to grow on her shell. This arthropod looks like a fossil, and it is is as old as one – about 450 million years. They have been over harvested for bait and medical testing, but here in R.I., a new-ish management plan will, we hope, boost their numbers.


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More on the metamorphosis

Two days after writing my last post about the black swallowtail caterpillar that came home with me on some fennel, I went outside and the caterpillar was gone. I looked through the fennel plant, and in nearby shrubs, but it had disappeared. Later, as I was getting into my car, I just happened to glance at the side of our house and there it was.

It annoys me when humans underestimate wildlife, but I still  think it’s pretty amazing that this caterpillar made its way more than 25 feet from its fennel plant, around the side of our house, and climbed five feet up to the spot where it obviously intended to pupate. I also wonder when this happened. Probably during the night.

Every time I park my car, I now glance over to see how the caterpillar is doing. For about 24 hours, it remained as you see it in the above photo.

Then, it became this.

We are usually too self-absorbed to see what’s going on in the natural world. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and you pay attention, you learn secrets and witness miracles like this one. I hope I get to see the final transformation.

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Caterpillar chronicle, continued

One week ago, I bought a bronze fennel plant at the nursery and on it was a tiny, black smudge of a caterpillar – a very young black swallowtail larva. I have been watching all week as it has grown, and every day it’s noticeably larger. I am expecting it to pupate soon.

Here’s a close up. You can practically hear it munching. I am so glad I am one of those people who notices the little things going on in my garden. Nature makes my days much more interesting.

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A bonus in the fennel

I bought some bronze fennel at my favorite nursery, hoping it would look interesting and dramatic in my garden and that it might attract butterflies. It already has.

If you look carefully at the photo, you’ll see a small black caterpillar on one of the stems on the left. Sorry the shot is so crappy but the camera kept focusing on the wall. For decent photos, click here.

The caterpillar is about a half an inch long and has a white band around its middle. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I brought the plant home with the caterpillar on it and did some research.

It turns out that this is the first instar, or stage, of a swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. (There are several instars before the caterpillar pupates.) I believe it’s a black swallowtail, because they like to lay their eggs on these plants.

I haven’t planted the fennel yet, but I will be very careful when I do. I’m hoping to watch this metamorphosis.



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A fine day for a garden tour

The weather gods smiled down on the Stonington CT Garden club’s “Gardens by the Sea” tour, which took place June 9 and 10. It was a truly splendid day for a walking tour of 10 gardens, described by the garden club as ” a hand picked collection of rarely seen gardens behind the walls and gates of Stonington’s historic properties.”

We picked up our tickets at Wadawanuck Square. They were $40, and $35 if purchased in advance. We arrived just at the start of the tour at 10 a.m. and it was a good thing, because parking was tight – well-organized, though, with plenty of volunteers waving us into a parking area.

Consulting the booklet, which, like most tours, has descriptions of each garden and a map so we could walk there, we began at Garden Number 1, “An Elegant Town Garden.” The promised flower carpet roses were not yet blooming, likely a consequence of the recent rainy, cool weather.

 Finding ourselves caught in a crowd of visitors, we decided to live dangerously and walked all the way over to Garden 10, figuring it would be far less crowded. We just did the rest of the tour in reverse, a good strategy.

This garden, somewhat comically named “A Hidden Hideaway,” was one of the more floriferous of the gardens.

There was also some charming garden statuary, like this presiding pig.

The ninth garden was described as “several gardens in one,” and the largest garden on the tour. It was large indeed, and featured some fantastic trees…

…like these impressive, mature Japanese umbrella pines.

The charm of this water feature was somewhat compromised by the pond itself, which needed a thorough cleaning. I feel strongly that if people are going to pay $40 to visit your garden, then you should ensure that every inch of it is show-worthy and in tip top shape.

(And lest you think I am overly critical, I have helped prepare several gardens for tours so I am very familiar with what that entails.)

Here are a few shots of the remaining gardens:

This one had stunning views of Long Island Sound.

This “White Garden by the Sea” was pleasant, even though it was not, strictly speaking, white.

We all agreed that walking the streets, most of which were lined with beautiful mature trees, was the highlight of the tour. We also enjoyed looking at some of the historic buildings in the town.

This is Dr. Lord’s Hall. The sign said it was the “former headquarters of the 1st Stonington Band” and had been built “prior to 1784.”

I’ll have more photos from this tour in a future post.



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A new blue

This flower belongs to the perennial Geranium Cranesbill “Azure Rush.” It is the happy outcome of a mistake I made at the nursery. I thought I was buying the cultivar “Rozanne,” which I have grown and loved for years, but when I got the three plants home and looked carefully at the labels, I saw that they were Azure Rush, not Rozanne.

Mildly irritated, I planted them anyway, in partial shade under a shrubby pine. Then I went inside, got on my computer and began to read the accolades. One of the reviews raved about how vigorous this geranium is, and I think so far, that’s true. Just look at one of the plants in the photo above, less than a week after it went in the ground.

Here it is, with some Gaura. Blue Azure was introduced in Germany back in 2007, but it’s new to me. It is hardy in Zones 5 to 8 and grows to about 16 inches tall. From what I have read, it flowers like crazy,  is less inclined to sprawl than Rozanne and has a more tidy, mounded appearance. It grows best in well-drained soil in full sun to part shade, and prefers some shade in the heat of summer. It attracts butterflies and is deer-resistant.

In gardening, some mistakes end up turning out for the best.

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