Fifteen years ago I did a piece for a garden column about three native fall-bloomers that I discovered in the rich remains of a defunct compost pile. The trio tickled me each time I passed them. They seemed to hum along like great chums in a barbershop, well, trio. Like other plants that ramble through my garden, they had settled in as wayfarers looking for new digs. How nice that they chose to be neighbors near a path.
The following summer they were gone. Not a stem, not a leaf, not a seedling. Hastily, I looked over my shoulder. I breathed a sigh of relief. There were no garden police checking out the whereabouts of the serendipitous trio I had glorified in print the previous year. Apparently, these vixens had enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame and vamoosed. Ingrates! Plants like these make me grateful for reliable old friends that emerge on time and in place each season.
For a few years I kept a watch, anticipated, hoped, even took to excusing the weeds that grew in their place, not wanting to disturb seedlings that might be growing among them. After a while, I just forgot.
Then a funny thing happened this summer. Was it that long, cold winter (southern style)? Or was it two good years of rain after eight years of scroogy sprinkles? Or did some X factor beyond our ken have a hand? Plants that had been lost for many years became “found.” Summer bleeding heart, New Guinea impatiens, a favorite phlox, and my celebrated trio. They weren’t neighbors any more, that would be too much to expect. But they had returned.
When I considered buying that small, waifish white wood aster (Aster divaricatus) a couple of decades ago, I wondered if it could survive our sticky soil. Never mind the soil, what would happen when rabbits found it? What the heck, it’s only a couple of bucks and a few minutes’ planting time, I’ll go for it.
Rabbits have to eat, too, I reasoned as I planted it in dry, dappled shade, which is what it likes in the wild.
It became a real success story, surviving soil and rabbits, strong and rough-hewn, with sharp-toothed, heart-shaped leaves (that I assumed were not palatable to rabbits raised on hosta) and sprawly stems that defied taming. Those starry white blooms won my heart, perhaps because they shine in fall when the rest of the garden is going to sleep.
I had to have more. I dug and divided and replanted. Not once did I consider giving this aster a taste of good soil and maybe a soupcon of sun. Good-naturedly, the divisions accepted this second-rate treatment. However, my inadvertent aster-advertising was so effective that rabbits discovered they were missing a treat. A decade of scant rain added the coup de grace and they went missing.
Pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) gets its name, say the books, because its rosy blooms look like turtle heads. And they do, except I never saw a turtle whose lower jaw stuck out beyond its head, or one who had yellow bristles in its mouth. The flowers are actually pretty nifty, the upper and lower “jaws” forming a little sac that holds the reproductive business of the bloom. The sacs seem tailor-made for nectar-sipping pollen-seeking bumblebees who practically disappear inside them as they forage. What bliss that must be for a foraging bee.
Turtleheads are arranged along short spikes, and they bloom languidly, a few at a time over a long period, travelling up the stem .
If you like tidiness in the garden, you will want to remove browned-out petals that distract your eye from fresh blooms, a task that takes no time at all as you walk along, but which I never do, though I might if I had notice that the queen was coming for a visit.
Pinching emerging stems in spring keeps the plant sturdy and bushy even as it grows four feet tall with dark glossy leaves. Since I don’t like to be pinched, I rarely pinch, which is a big mistake, so I am told.
When the trio existed, some stems good-naturedly jostled the wild asters, who, for their part, seemed to poke back. So much for poking and pinching. Fortunately, turtleheads are not a favored food of deer that do the poking in my garden.
I almost missed pink turtlehead’s bloom this year. Just a hint of pink shone among the tangle of native hibiscus, swamp sunflower, pineapple sage and joepye weed, temporary holds that had grown big-time in a propagation bed.
Had I followed my plan, I would have long ago excised those big boys. The struggling turtlehead upstart would have become an unknown casualty and I would be the poorer for it.
Early this spring, I had no idea that the unknown weed sprouting near the path was great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) coming home. Good garden practice would insist that I pull it immediately, but I am still kind to unknown weeds, despite the stoop-shouldered walk I suffer from routing – too late — mysterious plants that delay revealing their true identities as marauding urchins of the soil.
Curiosity piqued, I not only tolerated the invader, I supported it with a stake when it began to lean over the path, an effort that some alert deer took note of and very much appreciated. When, finally it bloomed on a compact, bushy plant (deer excel at pinching) it was so foreign to me that I had to consult my dog-earred Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to identify it. Well, hello old friend! Like pink turtlehead, great blues have two lips that form an inviting tube for pollinators.
Years ago, when I first met great blue, I had my choice of a pot with one large plant, or one with lots of small plants. I took the latter; if one died, I’d have plenty more to try. I needn’t have worried. As soon as that first group hit the soil, we were in great blues, forever, I thought. Those seedlings begat seedlings, which begat more seedlings, and so on. I confess to regretfully pulling some of the seedlings, easy work. Now I wish I had them back, for, like its cousin, the brilliant cardinal flower, the plant is short-lived.
The great blues that escaped the yank waltzed carelessly up and down beds, elbowing law-abiding plants with their pale blue spikes, eventually sidling up to turtlehead It was an obvious pairing, since both plants like rich moist soil and partial shade.
They are gone now, the stars have faded on the asters and dried seed heads and fat green pods are all that are left on great blue and turtlehead. If I’m lucky, the plants will come back. If not, I’ve harvested the fruits and sown them in a special bed with nice moist soil. Maybe next spring they’ll reward my nurturing. Or maybe not.