Echinacea the Purple Coneflower Perennial

Echinacea, otherwise known as Purple Coneflower, is native to the prairies of North America. We haven’t seen it in the wild up here in Pennsylvania, but we know it as a garden flower.

Purple Coneflower, a perennial garden favorite.
Purple Coneflower, a perennial garden favorite. Photo taken 7 July 2010.

Purple coneflower is a perennial that can be invasive in the garden or flower beds as the plentiful seeds of this composite family member will sprout the following year into many small plants. To keep flower beds tidy most of the volunteers will need to be pulled up. Successive years brings more growth as the plants get larger and larger. Older plants have more blossoms and they’re taller with flowering stalks up to five feet tall.

Purple coneflowers consist of light pink to deeper pink to lavender ray flowers and dark orange disc flowers. Some flower heads have petals that are distinctly swept back, while others mature to that position after having started out with a more horizontal look.

The cone of disc flowers starts out as a flat disc and as the outer disc flowers mature they grow in size which has the effect of pushing up the center of the disc, making the obligatory cone shape. When all the disc flowers have bloomed, the central disc truly is a cone-shaped coneflower. We let the cones overwinter as they serve as a food source for goldfinches, cardinals and tufted titmice.

Two species of Echinacea are common. Echinacea purpurea, known as Purple Coneflower, and Echinacea pallida, the Pale Purple Coneflower. The two echinaceas are very similar, but they can be differentiated by their lower leaves. E. purpurea has toothed, long-stalked leaves, whereas E. pallida has parallel-veined leaves that are toothless.

Toothed leaves of Echinacea purpurea.
Toothed leaves of Echinacea purpurea. Photo taken 7 July 2010.
Young composite flower head of Echinacea purpurea.
Young composite flower head of Echinacea purpurea. Photo taken 8 June 2010.

Bracts, stems and leaves are all rough to the touch because of the presence of small stiff hairs.

Swept back petals of Purple Coneflower with its orange disc flowers.
Swept back petals of Purple Coneflower with its orange disc flowers. Photo taken 30 June 2010.

Supposedly the Pale Purple Coneflower has lighter petals that are more pink than the darker Purple Coneflower’s reddish-purple petals. I wouldn’t use the petal color as a way to identify the species though. Judging by the progeny of one Purple Coneflower plant over several years, there is a lot of variation in the color of petals.

Pink petals of a young Echinacea purpurea flower.
Pink petals of a young Echinacea purpurea flower. Photo taken 30 June 2010.

Different color varieties of the Purple Coneflower are available for your garden at local and online retailers. You shouldn’t have to look hard to find a mix of pink, purple, white and yellow blooms! A true favorite – and the birds and bees love it too.

Japanese Beetles Get the Soap

Group of Japanese beetles eating Rubus leaves
Image via Wikipedia

As of yesterday there are 10 fewer Japanese Beetles in this world. I really don’t like killing living things, but these little buggers just had to go. How dare they munch on the cherry leaves, flowers of Echinacea and basil leaves that we want for our own?

How did they meet their end? Soapy water did the trick!

No spraying of pesticides needed.

Just take a small bucket, add a drop of liquid soap and a little water. Tap the buggers into the drink and they won’t be contributing to the next generation of beetle pests.

A plastic milk or water jug makes a great soapy water bug catcher. Cut away the top and front half of the jug leaving the handle intact and about half of the jug that will contain the soapy water.

Every day for the next couple weeks we’ll walk around the gardens removing these beetle pests. We don’t worry that we’ll decimate the beetle population or make them go extinct, because we see plenty of the beetles on tree leaves in the adjacent forest. However, we may have fewer beetles laying their eggs in the lawn that would make up next year’s grubs.

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Cleavers Weeds Make Bedstraw for Deer

White-tailed deer
Image via Wikipedia

Walking near the edge of the farmer’s field you can see many weeds where the open field meets the trees. On 15 May 2010 I saw this familiar weed, Cleavers, that grows in fields, waste places and along the side of the road.

A few days earlier there was an untouched stand of this weed and the large grouping looked pretty cool. Always have your camera with you! When I came back to photograph the weeds, I saw that someone had been there before me.

Matted circles show where deer most likely bedded down the night before.
Matted circles show where deer most likely bedded down the night before.

These weeds get about three feet tall and are prone to laying over to the side when they get that tall. The circular patches with the weed tramped down tell the story. The tallness of the weeds would serve to hide the deer even as they lay there.

Cleavers, Galium aparine, is a member of the Bedstraw Family, Rubiaceae. I guess it makes sense that an animal would use a plant referred to as bedstraw to make their bed. People figure some things out for themselves and other things we learn by watching. If people witnessed these large mammals lying down among the cleavers or bedstraw, people probably tried it for themselves. Early botanists may have named this family of plants because of their usefulness as bed stuffing.

Small white flowers cluster on stalks that project from the leaf axils.

Small white flowers project from the whorled leaf axils.
Small white flowers project from the whorled leaf axils.

Leaves are in whorl formation with six to eight, mostly eight, leaves. Cleavers has a sticky feel that is due to the tiny prickles that you can just see on the stems and leaves in the photo above. (Click on photo for a larger image.)

The other day I went back up to the field to see if I could get some better pictures of the cleavers flowers, but the farmer had sprayed some herbicide to ready the field for planting. The cleavers had already died back, which reinforces the idea that you should take more pictures than you think you need to assure that you get at least one good shot.

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Lone Turkey Shuffles Out of Woods

Turkeys are common in our neck of the woods. At the right times you can see flocks of fifty birds or more as they shuffle through an open field. Mostly, we hear them while the turkeys walk through the woods.

If you sit outside long enough, you’ll be able to hear a gobbler corraling his flock of hens together. A group of twenty or more turkeys will meander through the woods looking for something to eat.

We can hear shuffling sounds as they flip aside and turn over leaves while they march through the forest. Listen long enough and you can find out in which direction the group is headed. Often, the scratching of many feet signals their presence before we hear any gobbling or clucking.

One time I looked onto a corn field from our attic window and saw a huge group of wild turkeys, a few dozen I guess. I wondered if I could hear them making any sounds. I lowered the window and to my delight I heard a clamor of clucks and gobbles. The sounds those big birds were making were unbelieveable! I mean, there were so many turkeys and it seemed as if all of them were telling stories. It was a grey and cold autumn day, and it was drizzling, so maybe they felt safe to be so noisy out there. They really seemed to be enjoying themselves!

I wonder what wild herb this turkey gal is looking for…?

Turkey in the back yard.
Turkey in the back yard.

I didn’t know when I snapped this photo on 6 May 2010 that a whole troup of turkey birds were in the adjacent woods kicking up leaves and eating bugs!

Lariope-Liriope is a Tough Plant

However you spell it, liriope or lariope, is a very tough plant. It can survive and grow in many types of soil and various habitats. It’s used in flower beds as border plants and on hills to aid in erosion control.

Liriope muscari
Image via Wikipedia…one tough plant!

A while back someone found their way to wildeherb while searching for the proper way to trim their liriope plants. Read on to see why I say, “Mow them down!”

Apparently, liriope is relished by deer. Well, perhaps relished isn’t quite the right word. I’ve been watching these lariope plants that we brought back from NC years ago. They seem to have adapted to our climate just fine. Each year these perennials come back stronger than the previous year. Liriope flowered in 2006 after having been transplanted two years prior.

Early this spring I was shocked to see the foliage was eaten down to the nubbins. Since the foliage went missing in early Spring, instead of during the growing season, I would think that liriope isn’t first on the relish list of deer. Perhaps it was a rabbit or another animal, but judging by the amount of vegetation that was eaten whoever it was certainly was hungry. I’m still curious about it because I’ve read that lirope is deer resistant.

It was a bummer to think that we might lose the lariope plants, but we needn’t fear about that. It turns out that the foliage came back with a vengeance, as they say. Today, the greenery looks full and lush, and we look forward to another round of deep purple flowers this summer.

Lariope leaves growing up this year.
Lariope leaves growing up this year.

Even after the leaves from last year were eaten, lariope leaves grew out strong this spring.

If you have liriope or lariope plants in a garden or along a walkway, you can trim them back in early Spring simply by mowing them down. The vegetation will come back to provide for another year’s enjoyment.

Liriope muscari is native to Asia and it goes by several common names, like monkey grass, spider grass and lilyturf.

Perennial Catnip Growing Green Again

The felines will be happy that the catnip keeps coming back. I don’t know what drives them crazy about catnip, but we do know that they really enjoy it. The outdoor cats will come by to roll around on and near the catnip plants and to take a nibble. The indoor cat demands a fresh sprig now and then. After a playful romp it’s nap time.

A few years back we sprinkled some catnip seed — from some flowering tops we harvested and allowed to dry — along the front of the house, next to the driveway and near the flagstone walk. Since that day we have had catnip plants every year, much to the delight of our feline friends.

I am a little surprised how extensive the catnip colony is getting. From the original few plants that sprouted from seed, there is now a large group of plants. The root system probably keeps this set of plants coming back year after year, while allowing the mother plant to spread out. More plants are popping up right in the gravel driveway and between the flagstones. Some of them are pulled up, given away or harvested for the kitties, but it seems like we’ll always have a few plants around.

Here in Pennsylvania catnip grows wild along the roadsides. Once you can recognize the plant it’s easy to see that catnip is quite common. It’s growing really close to the ground right now, but if you wait until mid-summer then you’ll be able to see the 3 feet tall plants more easily. When the catnip blooms, its white blossoms are easy to spot along a country road.

Re-growth of catnip leaves. Notice large stem from last year's growth.
Re-growth of catnip leaves. Notice large stem from last year's growth.

Leaves of catnip are soft, almost fuzzy to the feel while other mints don’t feel quite as downy. The scalloped edges of the triangle-like catnip leaves are distinctive.

Distinctive scallop-edged leaves of catnip.
Distinctive scallop-edged leaves of catnip.

If you’re unsure whether you’ve got another member of the mint family or catnip, just rub a leaf and smell it. The odor should tell you which plant you have found. If you can’t smell, just give it to a cat. They will wrinkle up their noses if it’s a different member of the mint family!

LaVern guarding her catnip!
LaVern guarding her catnip!

Now, what good ‘ole country girl doesn’t have a cat or two to play mouse-catcher?

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Signs of Spring in South Central Pennsylvania

After a long, hard winter and a week of very mild temperatures – in the 60s! – people are smiling again. We still have some cold and chilly weather ahead, here in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania, but that’s ok. It’s not like we can expect more snowfalls that are measured by the foot instead of the inch!

Counties of the South Central Region of PA
Counties of the South Central Region of PA

To our south the snow piled up deeper and more often, but we did enjoy the wood furnace immensely. Talk about a radiating heat that lasts…once the floor and stone heated up it carried over through the night. It is so pleasing to not burn all that petroleum oil. Sorry, Canada, but we’d rather use our reusable resource that is so plentiful in PA! Time to re-order another 3 cord of wood for next winter.

Now that we’ve officially said goodbye to Winter and hello to Spring, we can list the signs of Spring all around us:

  • Canada geese flying north
  • slate-colored juncos no longer here
  • increase in songbird’s morning music
  • perennials like lilacs and raspberries showing off buds
  • maple trees flowering bright red
  • crocuses flowering beautifully in purple and white
  • first blooming yard weed — the white-flowering Pennsylvania Bittercress
  • strawberries greening up with new leaves starting to push
  • lilies, echinacea, mint, catnip, columbine showing new growth
  • tulip greenery up about halfway
  • garter snakes visiting the garden and spooking the leaf raker
  • garlic and parsley re-greening in the garden

Time to get to the woods to see the Spring ephemeral flowers, like hepatica, bloodroot, trout lily, violets and lots more. Check out the local parks and forests near you for places to see these beautiful Spring flowers. Your state department of conservation or forests and parks will be able to help you find a walking trail. In Pennsylvania we have the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to help find a local state park.

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Redbuds in Bloom and Birds Singing Loudly

Rainy days of spring – we’ve had a few in a row and the grass is getting too tall too fast. Even though it makes my last last mowing session seem like a waste of time, I do like seeing the garden lettuce getting bigger.

Trees are really growing their leaves quickly now. Scanning across the mountain ridges you can see shades of green replacing the drab and lifeless grays and browns. It’s like a wave of color change going up the mountain. The dark evergreens contrast nicely with the light greens of the new deciduous leaves.

Yesterday, we took a drive west into the heart of the Pennsylvania mountains, south of State College. All along Route 22 were beautiful redbud trees in full bloom. The lavender, lilac and light purple flowers were magnificent. In a few places these small trees lined both sides of the highway to provide a burst of colorful energy on that cool Spring day. Perhaps the redbud blossoms will last a week, but when the leaves start expanding the blooms will die back.

Dogwood trees are blooming near the edges of the forests. Even though they started blooming about a week ago, the white and ornamental pink flowers still look bright.

All the blueberry bushes are blooming now and the gaywings are smiling pinkly on the forest floor.

With all this Spring activity of growth we can’t forget our feathered friends as they have been quite active, too. A pair of bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird box – they’ve been busy for a couple weeks inspecting and cleaning house, and making a new nest.

This morning I heard an unusual bird song coming from the tree tops, so I ran to get the binoculars and then ran upstairs to get a better view. At the top of a tall oak tree was a male Scarlet Tanager singing loudly. I got to see him for only a few minutes before he flitted out of sight. Peterson tells us these birds are common, but you rarely see them unless you look up to the canopy. It’s pretty amazing how the bright, scarlet red color disappears in the shade of the leaves.

This afternoon I was treated to another bird song. This time the sounds came from a different direction, but also from the top of an oak tree. The binoculars verified that a Baltimore Oriole, or Northern Oriole, was looking for his mate. The bird’s head was distinctly all black and his chest and back shined a bright orange.

The oak leaves are probably 50% developed on average. The white oaks are a little behind the red oaks and chestnut oaks in their development.

The gypsy moths should be hatching very soon, so I hope the tanager and oriole will stick around for many free meals. I’ve heard that these two birds will eat the gypsy moth caterpillars, but can anyone verify that? I’ve also heard that no native bird here in the U.S. will eat the nasty little defoliators, so I’m crossing my fingers that the former is true.