Friday, December 14, 2012

The Meanings of Herbs at Advent

Herbs, flowers and various plants provide not only beauty, fragrance, medicines and food. For centuries, even millennia, poets, romantics, alchemists and just plain folk have attached symbolic meaning to plants, especially herbs. These meanings have morphed into a specific language called Floriography which developed during the Victorian era and continues today.

In the Christian church, Christmas (or Christ's Mass) is one of the holiest days celebrated (along with Easter). The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “the coming.” The time of Advent is a time of preparing our hearts for the arrival of Christ and his birth into our hearts. With that in mind, I decided to make a "natural" Advent wreath - one made with herbs that had meaning for the Christmas season. Research gave me a long list of herbs but only a few I had in my garden.

Here is a list of herbs and their meanings that could be used in an Advent wreath:

Juniper - life, hope
Myrtle - peace, joy
Rosemary - love, loyalty, remembrance
Thyme - courage, bravery
Rue - purification, virtue
Lavender - devotion, purity, virtue
Sage - virtue, wisdom (the Wise Men)
Amaranth or Boxwood - immortality, long life
Holly - crown of thorns with the red berries symbolizing Christ's blood
Ivy - friendship
Mistletoe - overcome difficulties
Lady's Bedstraw - a manger herb
Pennyroyal - a manger herb
Bay - merit, honor
Horehound - healing
Mint - virtue

The four candles surrounding the wreath are lit in succession during the four weeks of Advent, and the center candle is lit on Christmas Eve, representing Christ.The light of the candles represent the light of Christ.

Here is my interpretation of an Advent Wreath. I have juniper, sage, boxwood, ivy, holly, myrtle and rosemary.

Did you know Rose of Mary or rosemary was named in honor of the Virgin Mary? According to one legend Mary's blue cloak is where rosemary got its' color. The flowers, originally white, turned blue and acquired the sweet scent they have today when Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were fleeing to Egypt, Mary laid her cloak on a rosemary bush and the family hid beneath it. 

From deep in the piney woods of east Texas, I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a great New Year!

Garden On!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ode to Spidey - Requested Reprint

Several of my friends requested that I publish, on my blog, a newspaper article that I wrote a couple of years ago. Enjoy unless you suffer from arachnophobia.


I bumped into an unexpected visitor on the side of my garden shed this summer. I nearly knocked her off the window screen as I reached for the water faucet. Stretched between the window and a red geranium was a web with a big black and yellow spider just sitting there minding her own business. I was eyeball to eyeball with this handsome spider who was sitting head downward in the center of a web that had dozens of little silk packages scattered throughout. Sitting under the light of the garden shed, she was catching all sorts of ‘passers-by.’

Photo courtesy of Sonnia Hill
As I touched the web with a twig, she would hesitate then run back to the plant. I was not about to do anything to harm this welcome guest. I caught an ant and flicked it into the web and Spidey (as I had nicked named her) ran out and bundled this precious dinner up in a little package of silk. And so it went during my summer, out to water, flick an ant and watch the spider wrap packages! Every once in a while Spidey would actually eat her offering! My neighbors thought I was nuts - feeding my spider!

Photo courtesy of Sonnia Hill
My Audubon Field Guide of Insects & Spiders identified my pet as an Argiope spider. The word spider comes from the word “spithra”, meaning spinner, and this big black and yellow spider is one of the best. The large web looks like a spoked-wheel with concentric rings of silk. In the center is a perfect zipper – a zig zag of webbing called the stabilimentum.  This web gave the Argiope spider the nick name of writing spider. Some people actually thought they could read words or letters in the web. Scientists thought the stabilimentum was for strengthening the web and protect it from damage while others thought this marking as camouflage.

A damaged web means trouble. The Argiope depends on the web not only for food but for lodging. A tattered web can no longer net meals and requires time and energy to rebuild. But, these spiders are recyclers in that they ingest their old web and reuse it for a new web. The bright threads of the web actually shine in the sun and warn passing birds of the web. I also found out that these spiders have poor eyesight but their sense of touch is very developed. When an insect hits the web, the spider feels the vibration and spring into action. It only takes seconds for the spider to grab the bug and wrap it up.

Spidey with a butterfly
Butterfly dinner
Reports state the spiders are responsible for 80% of the biological control in the garden and are the most important predators of insects. Spiders are often underappreciated by gardeners. So don’t get out that insecticide! Remember the timely words of Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, “I live by my wits. If I didn’t catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and multiply and get so numerous they’d destroy the earth.”  An old song goes “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.” Well, I did all summer.

But alas, our cool nights came!! I ran out to the garden and found Spidey lying limp in her web. I quickly gathered her up and brought her in and put her under a light but it was too late. I put her elegant body in a terrarium that I have and will hope that the two egg sacks on the window screen will bring more of this wonderful creature to my garden next spring.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What the Heck is That? #2

It is a coolish fall day and the thought occurred to me that soon I will be wanting a fire in the old fireplace. And, to start a fire you need kindling. I don't have to go far to get what I need. I have an entire backyard of kindling.

My backyard

Now to get someone to pick it up for me. And, . . . .that someone would be me.

I started picking up all of these nice pencil-sized shellbark hickory limbs thinking they would make good fire starter. 

Shellbark hickory limbs

I began to notice something strange. The ends of the limbs were perfect cuts. Almost like a miniature beaver had its way with them.

My good friend, Cecil (yes, someday I will write about him but I can't do him justice in my blog. . he is a one-of-a-kind) informed me that it was the Twig Girdler beetle. Ack!

The Twig Girdler is simply trying to complete its life cycle in my trees. The adult beetle emerges in late August-October to feed on the bark near the ends of the branches. The adult lays its eggs during the cutting process and the twigs are girdled because the larvae are unable to survive in living twigs.

The small larvae hatch and overwinter in the dead twig and when spring arrives, the larvae grow rapidly. They migrate to the end of the twig where they transform into a beetle in 14 days! This happens usually in August and thus there is only one generation a year. That is the good news.

The bad news is insect control is difficult since the larvae are protected in the twig. The best method of controlling these creepy crawlies is to accept the problem, rake up all terminal branches (remember there are some still hanging in the trees) and burn them. Ah, ha! A fire after all!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What the Heck is That?

I had a real serious blog ready to be posted about the trees out here in the piney woods of east Texas but this morning came upon something that I thought might be of more interest to you. It certainly was fascinating to me.

West side
Although it is still "coolish" here it is never too cold to kayak our beautiful lakes. So today the Kayak Kuties (that is what we call ourselves even though we have several rugged men in the group) decided to float Holly Lake and take in the brilliant colors of autumn.

As we came around the bend in the lake, look what we found! A baldface hornet nest. The hornets construct an inverted, pear-shaped, enclosed paper carton nest which can be up to 3 feet long. The grayish brown nest has two to four horizontally arranged combs and an entrance hole at the bottom. 

Baldfaced hornets are considered "social insects." The mature colony consists of a queen, 200 to 400 winged infertile female workers, brood (eggs, larvae and pupae) and, in late summer, males and reproductive females. Social, I guess! Must be one big party in that nest.

Baldfaced hornets are large (3/4 inch long) and black with white markings, particularly on the front of the head and the tip of the abdomen. Front wings of these hornets are folded lengthwise when at rest.

My insect ID book states that it is the only "hornet" reported in Texas but it actually belongs to the yellowjacket family (Vespidae). Its sting can be intensely painful.

Memo to self: when kayaking, avoid this area. . . .

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fall Leaves Fall

Have you seen it? That little bit of scarlet in the trees along the side of the road. Me thinks fall is here because the red maples' leaves are, well, turning red.

We are blessed with the plentiful Red Maple (Acer rubrum) out here in the piney woods of east Texas. The tree can attain a height of 100 feet and a diameter of 3 feet. I love that each leaf is colored red, green and yellow.

Red Maple

Another colorful plant that gives tree bark a beautiful red necklace is Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Folks often mistake this wonderful vine for poison ivy. Poison ivy has 3 leaves; Virginia Creeper 5. Remember "leaves of three, let it be; leaves of 5, let it thrive."

Virginia Creeper

And my favorite tree for fall color is the Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). This tree is unusual in that it has three distinct leaf patterns on the same plant, unlobed oval, bilobed (mitten-shaped), and trilobed (three-pronged).  The roots of this tree are used to brew a sweet spicy tea. The leaves are used in thickening soups. The orange wood has been used for cooperage, buckets, posts, and furniture and the oil is used to perfume some soaps. 


And then there is the FarkleberrySparkleberry and Huckleberry which is a shrub with three names.

 Farkleberry, Sparkleberry, Huckleberry
(Vaccinium arboreum)

There are many other trees out here that provide a riot of color during the fall. I can't leave out the Dogwood, Sweetgum, Slippery/Winged Elm, Hickory and Walnut.

But, whether it is our wonderful Red Maple, the Virginia Creeper or Sassafras, the fall colors of these are not to be missed. 

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
Emily Jane Brontë

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

So What!

Ok, I admit it. I use fake pumpkins.

It has always bothered me to use food
for decoration that eventually
ends up in the compost.

I'll admit the displays at the Dallas Arboretum
are stunning.

But, how many pumpkin pies
can this make?

Yes, I use fake pumpkins.

Do the neighbors laugh?
So what!

I have some very fine friends
that give me their pumpkins
when the season is over.
I make and freeze the puree.

Yes, I use fake pumpkins.

Holly Berry and Harriet Beecher seem
to enjoy the autumnal decor.

Besides the last time I carved a pumpkin,
I had disastrous results!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Food, Fat and Fun - Feeding Hummers during Migration

I was recently asked about when to take down hummingbird feeders. My answer was, “it depends.” But, thinking that was not probably a very scientific answer, I thought I would read up on the fall migration. Each hummingbird species has its own migration strategy, and it is incorrect to think of "hummingbirds" as a single type of animal. So that being said, the below information refers to the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) or RTH for this missive.


Why do RTHs migrate? Being a migratory bird, hummers evolved to their present forms during the last ice age. As the ice retreated, these tropical birds expanded their ranges for food and nesting areas. In the fall the urge to migrate is triggered by the shortening length of daylight as autumn approaches. And, since hummers are carnivores (nectar being the fuel to power their insect catching activity); they need to migrate before fuel sources run out. And, we all know insects and nectar producing flowers are not abundant in subfreezing weather!

Weighing just over 3 grams, this tiny bird is a minuscule bundle of feathers and sheer stamina. A RHT weighs about 1/3 the weight of a common ballpoint pen. A migrating RTH will gain an extra 25-40% body weight for the trip. Needless to say the little birds are fat!

For a newly hatched hummer, there is no map or memory of past migrations. New hummers only have an urge to get fat, fly in a particular direction for certain amount of time and look for a good place to spend winter. (I would compare this to someone in my family who doesn’t ask for directions.) The birds will take the same path that was imprinted the first year they flew and will retrace that path every year as long as it lives. Plus the little guys fly alone.

Migratory Map
All hummingbird migration involves admirable feats of travel, but the RTH’s journey is amazing. There are four common routes. Many RTHs come down and fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico which is an 18 hour trip for the birds. Others take a western route through Texas into Mexico directly. Some reach the Gulf coast and turn west and travel along the coast. And, then there are those that circle east and island hop to Mexico.

We Texans have it best though. The first week in September when tens of thousands of hummers start showing up for the staging of their trip across the Gulf, the folks of Rockport and Fulton host a Hummingbird Celebration! Here you will find the largest concentration of RTHs anywhere preparing for their departure. There are many educational exhibits and tours but the best is the backyard tours.

So it is not necessary to take down your feeders to force hummers to migrate. The birds that are at our feeders now are already migrating. If you remove your feeders, RHTs will find food sources elsewhere but they may not bother to return to your feeders next year.

Cornell University FeederWatchers program report hummingbirds being seen in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida December – February. Mark Klym, information specialist for TPWD who I met through the Texas Master Naturalist program, says Texas has a consistent number of wintering hummers. Several species overwinter along the Gulf Coast with some wandering even farther inland.Check out his book, Hummingbirds of Texas

So I guess my answer still remains “it depends.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

If You Plant It, They Will Come!

They are popping up everywhere. . .along side the road, in pastures, yards, gardens and cemeteries. Their ethereal flowers are quite unique. But, where did they all come from? 

Naked ladies, spider lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies are actually Lycoris. There are red (Lycoris radiata), yellow (Lycoris aurea) and pink (Lycoris squamigera). Other names include ninja lily and hurricane lily. But, the best news is that they are easy to grow.


These plants leaf out in early spring and then vanish hence the nickname naked ladies. Come late summer or early fall, surprise! Now, I hope I have the following information correct. These wonderful blooms are an umbel where each group of flowers (inflorescense) are arranged on a single stem (pedicel).  The stem holding the whole inflorescence is called a peduncle. Peduncle is not the term used for a family                 member with a fondness for pretty young boys.


You can buy dormant bulbs from your big box store and plant them now. Bulbs should be planted at a depth where the "neck" is just under the soil line. When planting bulbs in groups, place them about 4 inches apart. Like other bulbs, these like a handful of bone meal per bulb in the planting hole. Well-drained soil and filtered shade are best. Bulbs can be lifted and separated.

Some Lycoris produce fertile seed and some do not. I am wondering if that is where all my Lycoris came from. Surely, I did not buy a bunch of bulbs and plant them willy nilly everywhere. Maybe when transplanting other plants, bulbs were moved as well.

Some professionals suggest making bulb cuttings, but this is not normally practiced by gardeners. Plus, my husband does not allow me to have real sharp objects!

Often these scarlet flowers bloom near cemeteries around the autumnal equinox. The Chinese and Japanese call these flowers "ominous" because it was thought they would guide the dead into the next reincarnation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What Happens at 5:00 a.m. in the Jardin Encantado

What were you doing at 5:00 a.m. this morning? Snoozing happily I hope. I, on the other hand, was experiencing an adventure and, no, it wasn’t in a dream. With our first cool days and nights of the coming fall, I have opened the windows to air out the house. This means I enjoy the all the sounds of nocturnal nature. . . .and so do my dogs.

Holly Berry
Harriet Beecher
 This morning around 5:00 a.m. (I refer to this time as Cecil time – which will be explained, I’m sure, in a later blog), not a creature was stirring – not even a mouse. Then out on the lawn there arose such a clatter that I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the door I flew like a flash, turned on the light and then started to dash. When, what to my sleepy eyes should appear, but my two dogs and one armadillo.

Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)
The nine-banded armadillo did not see the dogs until they were nose to nose. It jumped straight up in the air and ran off directly into my pond. Oh, good, I thought – now I must rescue a drowning armadillo. But, fortunately, it clawed its way out and scampered down the hill to parts unknown. By this time the dogs were bored and wanted to go back to sleep.

The state mammal of Texas, the nine-banded armadillo, is a cat-sized, armor-clad, insect-eating rototiller. Grub worms are its food of choice but it will occasionally eat berries and other small invertebrates. Breeding occurs in July but the embryo remains dormant until November. Four young are born in March in a burrow. All four are the same sex and are identical quadruplets formed from a single egg. The armadillo was originally native to South America but now can be found as far north as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Louisiana.

Most people only see this kind of armadillo

In an effort to keep my gardens from being tilled under by Mr. Dillo, I have resorted to using the humane-trap and release method. These are my results.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Want Colorful Blossoms from Summer to Fall?

Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'

In my humble opinion, every garden needs a few coneflowers. They bloom all summer, are deer resistant, and tolerate poor soil and dry conditions. And butterflies love them!

These plants are easy to grow - give them full sun and they will reseed and bloom for years on end.

Now the only question is should you deadhead or leave them alone? Deadheading will often bring another flush of blooms. Or you can leave the flower to go to seed for the goldfinches in the winter.
I don't remember the name of this cultivar

The name, Echinacea, comes from the Greek echinos meaning "hedgehog." Coneflowers belong to the family Asteraceae, which includes dandelions, black-eyed Susans, and Shasta daises.

Don't like the old fashioned floppy purple coneflower? Don't worry you can find coneflowers that have double flowers, are low growing, or have petals that stand up and in any color your little heart desires.

Echinacea "Summer Sky"
And they have enticing names like: coconut lime, green envy, green jewel harvest moon, hot papaya, milkshake, razmatazz, hope, Kim's mop head, fragrant angel, merlot, mistral, prairie splendid deep rose, summer sky, double delight, pink poodle, raspberry truffle, flamethrower, Mac n Cheesse, now cheesier and tiki torch to name a few.

'Pow Wow Wild Berry'

Not a clue as to the name of this one
Purple coneflower is  also known as a herb for stimulating the the immune system.  Echinacea has a rich tradition of use by North American Plains Indians who used it medicinally more than any other plant.  Now you can buy it in pill form at your local drug store.

So this winter as you sit by the fire with hot cocoa in hand and dream of gardening come spring, make plans to add a few Echinaceas.