Saturday, July 18, 2015

Old Garden Roses and Dad



Probably the closest I’ve ever felt to my dad was in the late ‘90s when he became interested in old garden roses. I was living in Atlanta at the time, trying to get my first yard going, and suddenly Dad was offering me these wonderful roses he’d rooted himself. Some had delightful fragrances. Others had bunchy, fluffy flowers like Persian kitten faces. All of them were charming.

Dad was the best salesman old garden roses could ever hope for. In his ebullient, enthusiastic way, he told me and my sisters all about them and got us all hooked on them.

He told us that the old roses had begun to fall out of favor when the first hybrid tea was introduced in 1867. Nurseries stopped carrying the old varieties, and they might have been lost completely if not for some stubborn, thrifty, untrendy gardeners who made cuttings and shared their old plants with friends and neighbors. Unlike the new hybrid teas, the old roses were tough and thrived on neglect. They weathered the years of obscurity, hanging on in forgotten cemeteries and other overlooked places until, after a while, people started to be interested in them again.

In the ‘90s, Dad got into “rose rustling,” hunting for old roses on roadsides and in vacant lots so he could cut a few pieces and propagate them. He joined the Tallahassee Rose Society. He built a small library of books about roses, and he gave us rose books for our birthdays and Christmas. In other words, he became a rose fanatic, and every time our family got together, we always had roses to talk about.

For many years, Dad would invite us kids over to his house every chance he got so he could give us a tour of his roses. He kept them in a bed next to his screen porch, planted in straight rows, with his daffodil collection at their feet. He’d lead us down the grassy aisles between the thorny beauties, saying, “Now here’s Mutabilis. . . . Now here’s my favorite. It’s called Perle d’Or. . . .”

He was constantly rooting new roses in his kitchen. They sat on the windowsill under little clear domes made from two-liter Diet Coke bottles, and Dad tended them very carefully and patiently like the scientist he was. (He taught physics at FSU for 40 years.)

Dad doesn’t ask us over to see his roses anymore. I’m not sure why—I think he’s more into music than roses these days. But I miss our old routine, the old ritual, the way he’d show us each and every rose and tell us its name. He had dozens and dozens of roses, and none were labeled. He had committed all the names to memory.

Part of our ritual was to enthuse about the roses after we'd seen them. We’d talk excitedly about how easy they were to grow. You didn’t need to water or fertilize them! You didn’t need to spray them with harmful pesticides! They were good for wildlife. Birds built nests in their prickly, protecting branches, and they ate the hips!

Maybe Dad’s not as wild about old roses as he used to be. Maybe. But that’s okay. He did a lot for these low-maintenance, water-wise, Florida-friendly plants. He turned all his daughters into rose freaks, and now our yards are teeming with chinas, teas, polyanthas, and noisettes. Bunny, my youngest sister, has a riotous, flesh-colored Reve d’Or sprawling over the roof of her garage and veiling her chicken coop. It’s the biggest, showiest rose I’ve ever seen. People come to her door and ask her about it. They ask her where they can get one. And so the love of old roses keeps spreading—thanks to Dad.







Saturday, July 11, 2015

The North Side



Last weekend I did a couple little projects to spruce up the north side of the yard. The projects were my favorite kind, the kind that involve mostly shopping.

First, I added a short path leading up to the little shelter we call the Vine House. The path is made of five round sandstone steppingstones that I found at Esposito's. ("They're hand-cut!" the cashier told me.) The path curves through the powder-puff plants with their ferny leaves and pink flowers.

Clay pots galore surround the Vine House, and I filled them with fresh pentas I got at Home Depot. The pentas were brilliant red, hot-pink, and majenta, and before I even got them all planted, a hummingbird came to visit.



Next, I turned my attention to the bed around the main house. Near the big Meyer lemon, there was an ugly weedy spot that had been bothering me for months. I stared at it for a while and finally I decided on the perfect replacement for the weeds: a bird bath, flanked by a couple of autumn ferns. I love autumn ferns. They're so tough. Plus, with their bronze-y plumage, they kind of remind me of plump, fluffy, well-feathered chickens—or maybe turkeys.

So I went to Tallahassee Nurseries and picked out a cool bird bath whose pedestal and bowl were encrusted with three-dimensional concrete shells—clam shells, conchs, and chambered nautiluses, all the treasures of the sea. I came home with the bird bath and the two autumn ferns I'd been dreaming about and got everything arranged under the lemon. When it was all in place, I spent some time admiring my new additions. I floated petals in the bird bath and took tons of pictures.



Friday, July 3, 2015

Ferns: A Love Story



I love ferns. I’ve always been drawn to them by their softness and quiet beauty. As children, my sister Kris and I spent many hours in the scrap of woods behind our house, gathering fern fronds. They were an essential part of our games. They made lovely “lace” fans for our dolls, and glorious plumes for their hats.

An early memory I have is of a neighbor, Mrs. Cowie, coming over and digging ferns in our woods to plant in her yard. Mom helped her, and they emerged from the woods carrying lush green burdens, great clumps of lady fern and Southern wood fern (though I didn’t know these names back then). Mrs. Cowie was so pleased and grateful that she came back the next day with a homemade cinnamon cake, still warm, for a thank-you. And so I learned the value of ferns. That cinnamon cake was the most delightful food I’d ever tasted. (At our house sweets were a very, very special, rare treat.)

Kris and I started keeping our own gardens when I was about 11. We had a spot in the very back of the backyard that we called our “estate.” It had round and square beds, some outlined with mushroom-studded logs and some with seashells. It also had two ponds about the size of baby pools, and one of the ponds had a short path, paved with pebbles, leading up to it. There was a little iron gate at the start of the path, and I remember planting Japanese climbing fern (a horrible invasive, I now know) next to the gate and carefully winding its tendrils around the posts and bars. I thought the climbing fern looked like green lace.

On my sixteenth birthday, I got my first “boughten" plant (as Mom used to say). All my other plants had been rooted from cuttings or dug in the woods. It was a gift from my parents, a bird’s-nest fern from Tallahassee Nurseries, glossy green and gorgeous, nestled in a terracotta pot. For many years it grew on the back porch, getting bigger and bigger and making me so proud. And then it abruptly and mysteriously died. It was like a pet dying, like a loved one dying. Mom and I grieved.

When Rob and I bought our first house, in Atlanta, I was able to start my first real, adult garden. Of course, the first plants I bought were ferns (autumn ferns) to cover the ugly, bare slope at the front edge of the front yard. The ferns thrived and soon the house seemed to be floating on a sort of heavenly green cloud. We lived in a busy inner-city neighborhood, so people were constantly passing by our yard—and often they'd compliment us on our ferns. There was a nice homeless man named Tye who would forget the word “ferns” and call them “fairies,” and I always found his mistake quite touching and flattering, because I thought it showed how delicate and ethereal and magical our ferns probably seemed to him.

Here in Quincy now, I grow all kinds of ferns—autumn, lady, Southern wood, Dixie wood, royal, Christmas, chain, holly, and Japanese painted, to name a few. They provide shelter for toads and box turtles and other small wildlife. And they’re simply beautiful, in their soft, subtle, ferny way.

I’m not that good with indoor plants, but I do grow some ferns in pots in the sunroom and on the breezeway as well as in the yard. My indoor ferns usually do pretty well until they get really big and cushiony and my cats start napping on them. Then I have to move them outside and let them rest in a cat-free environment, and sometimes they can recover and sometimes they can't. My cats have ruined quite a few maidenhairs, lemon buttons, and fluffy ruffles, but I guess I can’t really blame them. I understand. Ferns are pretty hard to resist.


As kids, Kris and I loved to pose our toys and take pictures of them. Here's our dear teddy bear Fenna waiting by the fern-accented gate at our "estate."

My first house in Atlanta, with its rows of autumn ferns


Here in Quincy: Sad cat statue and chain ferns


A Boston fern on the front porch


Beds full of mixed ferns

Friday, June 26, 2015

Vegan Lemon Coolers, Version 2



Today I'm taking a vacation day from work, so I celebrated last night by making a new version of the vegan lemon coolers I cooked up a few weeks ago. These new coolers are a bit chubbier (I added more flour) and more sugary (I rolled them in powdered sugar twice--right before baking and right after). They're pretty good.

Carl helped me with my baking (in other words, he sat on the counter and stared at me), and meanwhile I made up stories about him and his adventures. As I've mentioned before, I like to pretend he's my little boy, perpetually four years old, and that he talks and walks on two legs. He acts like a human child, but he looks like a cat (except he's dressed in adorable clothes).

I like to entertain/annoy Rob with these imaginings. "We have a country house called Great Oaks," I said last night as I mixed and stirred (Rob was sweeping). "We go there on the weekends and sometimes for the whole summer. Carl has a pony and I let him ride around the property, which measures exactly a hundred acres. Even though he's only four, he's a good rider and very responsible. He likes to ride to our pond, where there are alligators, but I don't worry because Carl knows better than to get down off his pony."

Rob, predictably, rolled his eyes. "Are you sure it's a pony and not a miniature horse?" he asked. "A pony might be too big for Carl to handle."

I thought a minute. "Okay, fine. It's a miniature pony."

"Well, I don't know how a miniature pony would do around a pond full of alligators," he said.

I sighed. "Okay, fine. Erase the alligators. And stop using logic. Logic ruins everything."

Vegan Lemon Coolers

Ingredients:

1 cup softened vegan butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 Tbls lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar

Directions:

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and mix again. Blend in the flour. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Place the powdered sugar in a shallow bowl and roll the dough balls in the sugar. Arrange on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Let the cookies cool and then coat them in powdered sugar one more time.


Carl sleeping on the pie safe





Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Vegan Lemon Coolers



On Saturday night I made Vegan Lemon Coolers. It was so much fun. The kitchen smelled of lemon zest, and the windows were open so the house was full of frog songs. Rob was nearby, sweeping up piles of catnip and cat fur and legions of toy mice, and I was talking in a merry voice, saying things like “Darn, I put in too much baking powder” and “Darn, all my dough balls are coming out different sizes.” I’m a terrible baker.

Luckily, the coolers turned out tasty despite my lack of skill. They were so easy. I found the perfect recipe on Savory Experiments and veganized it.

Rob and I ate our cookies in the living room that night while watching Silicon Valley and Daredevil. Usually our cats hang out with us, but not this time. They were "camping" on the breezeway. See, in summer they like to sleep out there in the pie safe, turning the shelves into bunk beds. They sleep one cat per shelf, with little Carl on the top shelf. (Leftover cats sleep on the table.) They sigh and stretch in the warm air as moths and fireflies dance like dream creatures just outside the screens.

Vegan Lemon Coolers

Ingredients:

1/2 cup vegan butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 tsps Ener-G egg replacer
2 Tbls water
1 tsp lemon zest
1 Tbls lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar


Directions:

In a large bowl, add the butter and sugar and beat with an electric beater until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla.

Whisk the egg replacer and water together in a small bowl until frothy. Add the "egg" to the sugar, butter, and vanilla.

Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and mix again.

Whisk the salt, baking powder, baking soda, and flour together in a medium-sized bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix again until well blended.

Place the powdered sugar in a shallow bowl. Form the dough into 1-inch balls and roll in powdered sugar. Arrange the balls on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes.



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Maintenance



Recently we had to have all our porch and step railings replaced because they'd rotted. It took months to get them rebuilt and painted. Now that all the work's done, I wanted to show you some “after” pictures and tell you a little about how I became interested in historic preservation.

I didn’t grow up in an old house; I grew up in a new house in a new suburban neighborhood in Tallahassee. Yet my love of old houses began when I was very young.

I think the passion really took hold when I was five and my mom read me Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer. It’s still one of my favorite books. The plot goes something like this: One summer a lonely little girl named Sally is left in the care of her mother’s lonely, seemingly stern old aunt who’s in town for a few months to sell her childhood home, a rundown Victorian. At first Sally's scared of the old house and the old lady, but she gradually begins to enjoy herself. She spends her days exploring the attic and the tangled garden, and in the end she solves a decades-old mystery, finding a beloved doll (Elizabeth) that Aunt Sarah lost as a child. The best part is the last page: Aunt Sarah announces that she’s decided not to sell the house but to restore it and live in it, and Sally promises to be a frequent visitor.

The book made a huge impression on me. After Mom and I finished reading, I began to believe that answers could be found in old houses. Or at least clues. An old house had secrets, stories, wisdom. It could tell you things. That’s what Magic Elizabeth taught me. I only got to visit my grandmother’s 19th-century farmhouse a few times in my life, but when I did I’d head straight to the attic. I’d dig through dusty chests and page through old, falling-apart picture books, trying to figure out who I was and where I’d come from.

See, my family lived really far away from any relatives and we hardly ever went visiting, so I was always full of questions about my identity and my family history. As I rummaged through Gramma’s trunks and boxes, I was looking for answers. Why was my mother the way she was? Why had she married my father? Why did we live so far away?

Gramma’s house was razed in the 1980s, and I sure wish it hadn’t been. I always considered that a terrible mistake, because Magic Elizabeth taught me that historic preservation can have a healing effect—not just on old buildings but on people, on broken families.

It can help mend entire communities, I've come to believe. Experiencing old places can give us a greater sense of belonging, make us feel less alone. It can help us understand that we’re part of a continuum, that we’re connected to the people of the past and the people of the future.

Living in my old house, I’m constantly aware of the “ghosts,” the people who lived here before I did. When I’m digging in the vegetable garden I often find their lost buttons and coins, and the daffodils they planted still bloom around my birthday. I’m also aware that if all goes right the house will outlast me and someone new will live here someday. Until then, I’ll keep fixing stuff and painting and repainting. I’ll try to be a good steward.









Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Amazing Spiderwort



One day a long time ago when I was still living in Atlanta, I was driving in the country on my way up to the mountains when I passed an old wooden house surrounded by dewy blue spiderworts (Tradescantia virginiana). The house was weathered and silvery—unpainted—and its lawn was entirely blue. The “lawn” was composed of hundreds and hundreds of spiderworts. It looked like a little blue lake, with the house floating in the middle like a boat. I almost ran off the road, I thought it was so pretty.

And so I was glad when I moved to Quincy and discovered spiderworts growing wild in my new yard. There weren’t as many as in the lawn of the old house in North Georgia, but there were quite a few. The grass was spotted with cool, refreshing blue. I knew Rob would be mowing, so I rescued the spiderworts and moved them into my planting beds.

Today, spiderworts grow here and there all around the house, in the company of ferns and other wildflowers—most notably, wild petunias in a matching lavender-blue shade. On spring and early-summer mornings, both species look so fresh, so cool and tranquil, so delicious. They put me in mind of blue-raspberry popsicles, Berry Blue Kool-Aid, and other thirst-quenching treats.

Spiderwort, also known as Virginia spiderwort, lady's tears, Job’s tears, snake-grass, spiderlily, dayflower, flower-of-a-day, trinity lily, and trinity flower, is an herbaceous perennial native from Florida north to New England and west to Minnesota and East Texas. It grows up to 2 feet tall and can be found in meadows and open woods and along stream banks and roadsides.

The leaves are long (often measuring a foot or more) and strap-like, about an inch wide, tapering toward the tip. In shade, they’re medium green, but in more sun they tend to turn chartreuse. They’re kind of grass-like in appearance, but more tender and fleshy. The way they tend to bend over in the middle, they remind me a little of spider legs—daddy longleg legs, in particular. Rabbits, turtles, and deer are known to nibble them, and some people say humans can eat them too, though I don’t plan to try them.

Here in Quincy, my spiderworts bloom steadily from the beginning of April until around the end of June. The flowers in my yard are blue or violet, which are the most common colors for spiderworts, but I’ve read about plants that have pink flowers or even white ones, though white is supposedly quite rare. Each flower measures about an inch across and has three rounded petals. In the center of the flower are six stamens topped with bright yellow anthers (pollen holders).

The blooms of a spiderwort are precious, fleeting, ephemeral. They stay open for only a day—or a morning, if it’s sunny. By afternoon, they’ve wilted, faded away, but new blooms appear daily (or almost daily) throughout the spring. If you want to support bees, this is a good plant to include in your pollinator garden. I’ve seen all kinds of bees visiting the flowers—honeybees, carpenter bees, halictine bees, bumblebees. . . . I read that bumbebees are the primary pollinators.

Spiderwort is adaptable and will grow in a variety of soil types, including moist, dry, sandy, clay, rich, poor, acid, and alkaline. It does best in part shade but can also endure full sun. In mid-summer the foliage can get a little messy and bedraggled-looking, so you might want to cut it back if you think it’s an eyesore. New leaves will develop as temperatures cool down, and plants will sometimes flower again in fall.

After 10 years of tending it, I’m happy to report that my population of spiderworts is slowly but steadily growing. Established plants will self-sow, but spiderwort also spreads through underground stems (stolons) and, given time, can form large colonies—like the one I saw that day and never forgot. Finding that magical, all-blue yard in the foothills of the mountains is still one of my favorite memories.






This is one of the beds where my spiderworts grow. Unfortunately, you can't really see them in the shot. So what is the point of this picture? I don't know.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Add Sparkle with Spangle Grass



Chasmanthium latifolium is known by many common names—river oats, wood oats, Indian wood oats, wild oats, northern sea oats, upland sea oats, inland sea oats, flathead oats, upland oats, broadleaf uniola—but to me the most apt and evocative of all its names is spangle grass. This is a plant with a whole lot of flash.

In fall, it lights up a semi-shady spot with bright, coppery, oat-like seedheads that twinkle in the sunlight and flutter with every breeze. The seedheads also provide much-needed winter interest in the garden. After they’ve glittered their way through autumn, they persist—faded, ethereal, ghostlike—until spring.

A lot of grasses that really show off in fall and winter seem to like to take a backseat in summer. Well, spangle grass doesn’t do that. It’s eye-catching all year round. In the warm months its soft, bamboo-like leaves create a tropical effect. The leaves are lime-green in full sun and darker green in shade. Spangle grass is graceful and arching, loose and airy, and usually grows about thigh-high. Dangling pale green flowers appear in May or June.

Spangle grass occurs naturally in moist woodlands from Florida west to Arizona and north to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. A common component of mature bottomland hardwood forests, it is often found growing in isolated patches along streams.

In the wild, lush, soft clumps of spangle grass provide cover and nesting spots for everything from turkeys and quail to rabbits, voles, and mice. Turkeys, wood ducks, and many other birds feast on the abundant seeds.

In the garden, spangle grass can be used in mass plantings or as a specimen. A clump here or there makes a wonderful accent, especially near a water feature. The grass also works well in tubs and other large containers. Pair it with black-eyed Susans or native asters for extra dazzle in fall. The soft texture of spangle grass provides a welcome contrast to stiffer, coarser plants. In my yard, I have it planted close to some old-fashioned roses, and the combination of formal rose blossoms and free-flowing seedheads is really surprising and pretty.

Spangle grass is easy to grow. Though it flourishes in sun and moist, fertile soil, it also does well in part shade and dry, poor soil. My spangle grass grows in a dim, parched, sandy place under some wild sumacs on the north side of the house, and it thrives there even though I almost totally neglect it. (I do cut back its old growth in early spring.)

Planting spangle grass in dry shade is a good way to prevent it from self-sowing—a thing it will do like crazy given half a chance. You'll definitely want to discourage it. Another way to keep “babies” from popping up all over your yard is to gather the seedheads in fall (if you don't mind depriving the birds). They’re stunning in bouquets and dried arrangements, and they won’t shatter.


Fall display


Spring leaves in a bouquet with purple coneflowers and heirloom roses


Growing next to Mrs. B.R. Cant, in early April


Under the sumacs, in late April

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Imperial Piedmont Azalea



When I was growing up, my parents had a piedmont azalea that was queen of the side yard. From my earliest memory, it was sprawling and spready—utterly enormous. A grand thing. In spring it would be dressed in pale and shining raiment and surrounded by fawning courtiers (bees and butterflies).

By the time I was 10 or 11, its origin had become the stuff of legend. Mom and Dad had rescued it when the Tallahassee Mall was just about to be built. Apparently the site of future construction had been temporarily opened to the public and Tallahasseeans had come out with their shovels to dig wild azaleas and dogwoods and ferns from the doomed woods.

As a child I was fascinated by bygone times, and I would often wonder what our town must have been like when the azalea was rescued, before the big mall came in. (I couldn't really remember.) It was sad to think about what was lost, of the woods that were only ghosts now, only memories. Tallahassee was always changing, always growing, getting bigger and uglier (in my opinion). Nothing stayed the same.

Our azalea seemed like a precious relic of the past—that’s how my parents treated it. Like a dinosaur bone. I never dreamed, as a child, that you could just go to a nursery and buy a piedmont azalea. I thought the plant could only be found in wild, undisturbed places, and I knew there weren't many of those left.

So it was with great excitement that I discovered, in my early 30s, that piedmont azaleas are pretty widely available in the nursery trade. In my yard in Quincy, I now have dozens. I've planted them in clusters around my various patios and sitting areas, and I've planted them singly, here and there, in our patch of woods in the backyard.

Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) is a large deciduous shrub (6 to 15 feet is the typical height) with a delicate texture and a graceful, open form. When it’s in bloom, especially, it has a wonderfully ethereal quality. One time when I was young (in my twenties), I was on a Greyhound bus headed through South Georgia when I spied one, in full flower, in a dreary stretch of still mostly bare March woods. The gray of the landscape went on and on, mile after mile, but then there it was—the piedmont azalea—such a sweet surprise. It was like coming upon a fairy or an angel. My heart quickened at this beautiful, unexpected, and unearthly vision, and I was filled with delight—even though I had no money and no prospects and was riding on a bus.

The 2-inch flowers are fragrant and funnel-shaped, arranged in wreath-like clusters. Their very long stamens make them look extra fancy and dainty. The flowers open in early spring, often before the leaves, and come in a variety of colors. Some plants have white flowers. Others have pink—and the pinks come in all shades, from light to dark, from baby pink to bubblegum to rose. (It’s always a fun, when I bring home a new plant, to see what color its flowers will be.) White or pink, the flowers smell delicious, and they provide nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long, medium green, velvety, oval-shaped, and cute. They make nice blankets for tiny hedgehog and mouse babies when you’re playing Calico Critters with children.

Piedmont azalea thrives in moist, rich, well-drained, acidic soils. Part-shade is best, though plants can be grown in full sun with careful watering. In the wild, piedmont azalea is often seen growing along streams and the edges of swamps. It’s native from Central Florida up to North Carolina and west to East Texas.

Piedmont azaleas can live a long time. The one at Mom’s house is about 50 years old now and is still as splendid and stately as ever. I was over there on Easter, and before I hid a pink egg in a branch, I made a little bow in tribute.





Saturday, April 11, 2015

Red Buckeye Rules in Spring



Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a plant so spectacular that it once inspired me to change my life, to change careers, to quit my job and study horticulture.

I was 33 and teaching English in Atlanta at a school I suspected was doing the kids more harm than good. It was springtime and, dedicated teacher that I was, I’d often spend my lunch break gazing out the window. I’d peer into the surrounding woods, which were full of red buckeyes in brilliant bloom. Trilliums nodded beneath them, beeches towered above, and ruby-throated hummingbirds zipped from flower to flower, their wings a silver blur. The scene was so lovely that it filled me with hope, and as I gazed out the window, I began to believe a better life was possible.

One day I came home and said to Rob, “I think what I’d really like to do is work with plants.”

And a few months later I was taking horticulture classes—learning to drive a tractor and graft camellias. I’d found a perfect fit.

All these years later, red buckeye is still one of my favorite plants. It’s highly ornamental and great for wildlife.

It’s one of the first plants in my yard to leaf out in spring. The leaves are red or bronze as they emerge, but they soon turn shiny bright green. The mature leaves are large and lush—star-like—each composed of five toothed leaflets that can measure up to six inches long.

The blooms come early too. In the first weeks of March they appear in showy 10-inch clusters that look like strings of Chinese firecrackers. But the flowers are full of nectar, not gunpowder, and they’re timed just right to meet the hungry ruby-throats as they return from their overwintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

For these little birds, the red buckeye is a very important food source because it blooms at a time when many other plants are still dormant and nectar is tough to find. In fact, the ruby-throat is believed to be the red buckeye’s main pollinator, though the plant is also used by bees and some butterflies.

The fruit is ripe by the end of summer. It’s a light brown, leathery-skinned capsule containing one to three large, round, shiny brown seeds that are said to resemble deer eyes. (The seeds give the plant its name.) The seeds are beautiful and glisten like jewels, but, unfortunately, they’re poisonous and largely ignored by wildlife.

Red buckeye usually takes the form of a large shrub or small tree (8 to 10 feet is the typical height), but I’ve seen much larger specimens. On Easter my family and I went canoeing down the Chipola River, and up on the limestone banks stood venerable red buckeyes at least 30 feet tall. They had thick, sturdy trunks wrapped in pale, lichen-studded bark. Lipstick-red flowers bloomed high in the air, visited by tiger swallowtails.

Red buckeye is native from Central Florida up to North Carolina and west to Illinois and East Texas. It prefers neutral to alkaline soils, so you might want to add lime if your soil is acidic. Shade to part-shade is best, though plants can be grown in full sun with regular watering during the first year or two. Red buckeye loses its leaves early, often in July or August, which might be something to consider when you’re choosing a planting site. I grow my red buckeyes in a shady border interspersed with evergreen needle palm, so when the buckeyes go dormant you don’t really notice; you’ve still got the green, fountain-like needle palms to enjoy.