It struck me during this last week that I hadn’t been on a single local botanizing foray this summer. Not one. After spending at least a day per week for the last two years in the field during the summer, I’ve let my busy schedule come between me and one of my favorite, pleasureful pasttimes–foraying into the remnant wilderness around my home. So today I fixed that. I spent the afternoon, albeit a hot one, in the field in search of local flora blooming at the height of summer. Another realization I still find most troubling–it’s August 1st.
August 1st, for me, marks the peak of high summer. High summer, as garden writers of old wrote, marks midsummer, the time at which many gardens succumb to heat and humidity and during which many gardeners retreat for the cool shelter of air conditioning. Despite my abhorrence for the heat and humidity, I relish my garden the most during high summer. Maybe because the norm among gardens at the height of summer is drab, blah, and burnt. I’m good for sharing my secrets too. Stay tuned to the folds of Fine Gardening magazine in 2011 for my run-down on how to beat the heat of high summer with a palette of dependable, hardworking plants.
When I think of that palette of plants, which really is quite encompassing, I think of the prairies of Iowa–environments where plants must thrive through heinous bouts of heat, wind, hail, and torrents of dashing rain, often repeatedly from June through August. I spent some time remembering and rediscovering some of these plants in their raw beauty today amid the buzz of dragonflies and the cajoling calls of nesting songbirds. Take a look…
Clematis virginiana—Known commonly as devil’s darning needles, this native clematis rightly reminds many of the favorite sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). This native counterpart differs by forming a more sprawling vine perfect for ambling up shrubs and small trees with bevies of smaller flowers borne earlier than its Asian cousin. I found these faintly scented flowers just opening this afternoon.
Echinocystis lobata–I love vines and honestly never have enough vertical space in my garden. If you gave me two hundred trellises, pointed towards the horizon, and said “go west and create a garden,” I’d hit the road with nothing more than seeds and a well-polished trowel. One vine that I keep meaning to try, and that I think has some promise in the “annual vines with fragrance” department, is the cucumber vine. It will easily engulf a trellis by midsummer only to outdo itself again with loads of sweetly fragrant white flowers. The fruits are equally entertaining, harboring four seeds that develop under hydrostatic pressure. These spiny, prickly, hedgehog-like pods explosively pop late in the fall, reportedly ejecting seeds at speeds of up to 11.5 m/seconds.
Elderberries and American plums looked tasty today. Made me think of preserves, jams, and jellies. My “foodie” mind is never far away.
I visited this local prairie today to find it awash in yellow daisies–members of the genus Silphium to be exact. These rosinweeds (Silphium integrifolium) are some of the most underused late summer-blooming yellow daisies. Sure, some chalk them up haughtily (or boringly) as just another in the encumbering class of “ADCs” (another damn composite). But these starkly textural, tough, and zoneworthy perennials laugh in the face of high summer bringing much needed color to an otherwise tired and often burnt garden scene. I believe strongly that some seasons of the year have a “just so” kind of look–and for August, that “just so” look is blended yellow and gold against clear blue skies. See also Silphium spp.
Scrophularia marilandica–I was so tickled to find this common figwort today. I’ve never seen one before, but immediately knew what it was when I dashed by it at 30 mph along a dusty gravel road. I ground to a halt, sped backwards a few hundred feet, and waded through a ditch of head-high weeds to get this photo. I remember marveling over these obscure flowers in field guides as a kid, and sure enough found it today just a five miles from my house–a lesson in how easily we take native plants for granted. Though I don’t see much hope for common figwort in American gardens, it’s truly a nerdy plant that you just have to see to appreciate.