Sweet Alyssum

Sweet Alyssum Close Up

Sweet Alyssum Close Up

Every year I plant Sweet Alyssum in multiple locations in my yard, in containers and in hanging baskets. Although I’ve mentioned the use of Dwarf Mexican Petunia as an excellent filler plant for containers, I find Sweet Alyssum to be the ultimate filler plant for small bare spots in hanging baskets and pots. Sweet Alyssum is a wonderful border plant as well.

Sweet Alyssum, Lobularia maritime, is a low growing, somewhat trailing, annual that produces tiny clusters of white, near white, purple and/or pink flowers. White is the most common color of Alyssum found in the nurseries and in seed packets, but you can find an “Easter Egg” variety that will surprise you with a kaleidoscope of the pastels.  When in full bloom, the scent of Sweet Alyssum is . . .well . . . sweet!    You can especially enjoy its honey-like fragrance when planted en masse.

Although listed as an annual, Sweet Alyssum is quite hardy and will survive mild frosts. Alyssum is typically the last surviving annual in my flower beds as the hard freezes set in. Here in North Texas this means you can enjoy the fragrance and beauty of Sweet Alyssum from early spring through mid winter. -And if you are fortunate, some of your Alyssum may return in the spring via re-seeding.

While it will tolerate all light conditions other than full shade, Sweet Alyssum grows and blooms best if planted in mostly sunny to partly sunny locations. If it does not receive enough sunshine, it may become leggy (as it tries to reach more light) and will produce very few blooms. On the contrary, in Texas and other areas that experience hot, dry summers, Alyssum may stop blooming altogether in July & August if planted in 100% full sun. In this case, if you water it regularly during the dry times and keep it green, you may be rewarded with a resurgence of blooms come early fall when the temps decrease a bit.

Sweet Alyssum, like Dill, is one of the easiest, quickest and least expensive plants to sow from seed. From seed, it can create an elegant, finishing touch to any container, no matter whether the primary plant groupings are other annuals, perennials, bulbs or non-blooming greenery such as ferns or ivies. I have to admit that after I have arranged my hanging baskets and containers with the “backbone” plants, I simply take a handfull of Sweet Alyssum seed and sprinkle around the bare areas and near the rims of the containers. There truly is no need to cover the seed as it is very, very fine and will blend with the soil and germinate easily. I have found that after watering for a couple of days, it will rapidly sprout and begin to spill over your containers very quickly. At first it will merely be a cascade of dainty green leaves, but not long after, the green will transform into a froth of color.

The photo below is of one of my containers where I alternated Dwarf Mexican Petunia plantlets with Sweet Alyssum seed around the perimeter of the pot. (The center plant is Pink Guara, a native Texas perennial, which I may speak about in a future post.) When all are in full bloom, I will have a pink arching centerpiece surrounded by a ring of violet blooms, along with drippings of dainty white flowers in one beautiful potting. I cannot wait! Having only sown the Alyssum seed last week, unfortunately it is too soon for it or the petunia to be blooming, but I wanted to depict how easy it is to use Alyssum to complete, compliment, and enhance a backyard floral arrangement similar to what you may see in public gardens and high-end nurseries.

Sweet Alyssum Sprouts Surrounding Pink Guara and Mexican Petunia

Sweet Alyssum Sprouts Surrounding Pink Guara and Mexican Petunia

Carpet of Sweet Alyssum

Carpet of Sweet Alyssum

With regard to planting Alyssum in your beds, you can certainly create an instant floral “carpet” or border by setting out multiple 4 inch pots of the plant. However, it is very possible to create the same carpet of flowers by sowing seed directly into the soil, and in fact, it is probably less intrusive to any surrounding plants if you choose to do so. I have read where some folks sow Alyssum seed regularly around the base of their existing rose bushes and vines to add some extra flare to their blooming gardens. I have also read where the white variety of Sweet Alyssum is a welcomed addition to moon gardens, not only due to its white color, but also due to its wonderful aroma. For more on moon gardening see my post about Moonflower Vine.

I encourage you to browse the seed stands and purchase a couple of packets of Sweet Alyssum.  Toss the seed around in your potted containers, hanging baskets and/or perhaps in a bare spot or two in your landscape. Water the seeded areas for the next few days and you’ll have honey-scented Alyssum to enjoy in no time!

Until next time,




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Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Originally posted and written in 2011

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted about some of my trials and errors when it comes to gardening (and nature in general) so in light of the fact it is not a good day (and probably not a good week) for planting, bird watching or outdoor activities otherwise, I thought I’d share a few words of wisdom I have learned the hard way. I actually started working on this post some time ago and set it aside to write about timely plants instead. However, the timing is good today for several reasons, among them, I wanted to take an opportunity to let you know that although I love and respect plants, animals and nature in general, I have just as many challenges in my endeavors as I do successes!

I am what I call a “moderate” when it comes to just about everything. I don’t have the best yard in town, but I admit it is pretty good. I don’t have all the ideal landscaping plants installed because I can’t afford to buy them or get rid of the ones in existence, but I always make the very best of what I have and what I can buy. I don’t take my pets to the vet as often as recommended but they get their annual shots and they absolutely go when they are in need. I still love them, bad breath and all. I guess my point is, things usually work out “pretty good” even if you don’t have as many resources as you’d like. -And if you fail at an endeavor, at least you learn something – albeit sometimes the lessons are painful. I hope none of the following true excerpts is found to be offensive. If so, please keep in mind that for me, the consolation of my failures is that I always have good intentions.

Now that I’ve got my philosophical statements out-of-the-way early in this post, let me share with you a few things I have learned the hard way –

palm1. Don’t bend down from directly above a spiked palm plant to look at its base. You will end up in the emergency room with glow in the dark goo all over your eyeball and will leave wearing a huge patch over your eye. The worst part is you didn’t get poked in the eye in a respectable manner – you got it from being a dummy.

2. This is a repeat. Don’t rake long-standing leaves or clean out any kind of deep debris from under your shrubs without gloves, shoes or other protective clothing. You may again end up in the emergency room but this time with a 20-something-year-old intern drawing a circle around a brown recluse spider bite located on your rear end.

mouse3. No matter how much of an animal lover you are, do not pick up a field mouse, cup it in your hand, tell your kids they are harmless and then proceed to open your hand and look it in the eye. It will take a lightning fast leap from your hand and run inside your shirt. Your kids will laugh hysterically as they watch you shed your clothes in broad daylight and dance all over the backyard screaming.

spider4. When you see the ground moving in an old country cemetery, do not bend over to get a closer look, especially if you have long hair. You will soon have daddy-long-leg spiders crawling all over your head. Again, your kids will laugh hysterically as you scream and violently “dry wash” your hair while running in and around tombstones.

5. If you have multiple bird feeders strategically placed around your house, do not waste time and money purchasing grass seed and meticulously distributing it in your yard. It is like hosting Thanksgiving for the birds.

6. If you see a small brownish gray critter in your house that is walking slowly (even when being chased by cats) and it keeps running into the baseboard, it isn’t a drunk mouse. It is a mole.

7. Hanging baskets inside your house make good perching spots for Mockingbirds that may enter through your doggie door. Above ground-level plants, like trees, make them feel right at home. (Please note #3 and #6 are also related to the doggie door.)

angel fish8. No matter how small an Angel Fish’s lips look, be assured they can suck up multiple Neon Tetras like a brand new Hoover within seconds. Unfortunately, the schooling theory that is supposed to keep small fish safe in a community tank doesn’t hold water. (I know, a bad pun.)

9. Don’t ever dig up a huge root of Turk’s Cap just to prove you can, or to save money. You may succeed, but your knees will prove to you for the next 3 months that you really can’t and you’ll pay for it in doctor’s appointments and anti-inflammatories.

10. If you have a blind and deaf dog that survives through the use of his sense of smell, do not place leftover cheese pizza in a platform bird feeder that is directly above newly planted flowers. Your dog will trample over and sit on top of your seedlings with his nose in the air until the cows (or cowbirds) come home!

11. After reading that frogs are a natural way to control bugs in the garden, don’t gather ten of them up from your parents’ soggy property, place them in a tall tub in your back seat and drive an hour and a half back to your house. Not only will the frogs hop off to wetter pastures, you will need a chiropractic adjustment when you arrive home to get the kinks out of your shoulders from cringing every time you hit a pothole.

12. If you have a dog that barks at planes, trains, and automobiles, don’t be surprised when he leaps from the back seat of your van and repeatedly attacks your windshield wipers as you attempt to drive him to the vet in pouring rain.

habanero13. If you grow fresh Habanero peppers and decide to dispose of any leftovers from cooking or canning, do not send them through the garbage disposal. Your family will have to vacate the property for several hours as you will have essentially pepper-sprayed them.

I can’t leave you with an unlucky 13 . . . and lastly,

lizard14. If you hear that lizards love to bake in the sun, try to remember that when they are in their little plastic houses, they are trapped and can’t find shade when they get too hot. In Texas, they literally do bake in the sun!   Please give me a break on this one. I was only 6 years old when I did this to the chameleon my parents bought me at the Texas State Fair – all with good intentions, of course!

Until next time –


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The Unique Mockingbird

 Originally posted 5/19/2011
Mockingbird Eating an Apple

Mockingbird Eating an Apple


I have a bird feeder situated just outside of my kitchen window. It is placed there on purpose to provide me entertainment while washing dishes and preparing meals. As I mentioned in my previous post about blue jays, part of my initial morning routine is feeding the birds along with my dog, cat, angel fish and gouramies. The birds have become quite adjusted to this routine and so as I wait for my coffee to brew, I usually stand near the kitchen window and watch them flock to the feeder. Unfortunately, my feeder attracts a few bullies now and then and this disturbs me. These Grackles swoop down and butt their way into the midst of the platform feeder, stepping on the little sparrows and finches and squeezing out the timid doves. The Grackles then proceed to kick out what seed they don’t want. Being the animal lover that I am, I allow the Grackles time to get a few bites of seed and then I tap on my window pane to shoo them away. Unfortunately, this method usually results in scaring off all the birds.

A few mornings ago, as I was waiting on my first cup of coffee, I saw a Mockingbird at my feeder. Not long after, the Grackle bullies arrived and all the little birds and doves flew off. Interestingly, the Mockingbird did not budge. As the Grackles trampled around him, he opened his beak and squawked and hissed until the bullies flew away. Hooray for him!

Growing up with pets and having Mockingbirds all around me in North Texas, I had indeed come to know them as being quite territorial. I believe for the most part, the Mockingbirds were pecking at my cats in defense of their nests, but I also believe it is just the nature of a Mockingbird to be a risk taker. But being a risk taker is only one aspect of a Mockingbird’s personality – a personality that is indeed quite unique.

Mockingbirds (technically, Northern Mockingbirds) are medium-sized, slender birds of a gray to gray-brown color with white stripes on their wings. They have relatively long beaks and long legs compared to their bodies. They can usually be found perched on highline wires, in tops of trees, on chimneytops or on a mailbox. They are one of the few types of birds that can adapt and survive in almost any type of habitat, from cities to suburbs to rural farmland. They can be found throughout the United States and Mexico at all times of the year:  from the cooler climate states bordering Canada, to the tropical forests of deep Mexico, as well as in the desert areas of the southwestern United States.

Mockingbirds are considered omnivores, which means they eat both insects and vegetation (seeds, fruits and berries). Due to the abundance of insects in the summertime in most locales, Mockingbirds feed well on protein in the hot months. In the cooler months, they may be seen more regularly at the feeder. From personal experience, one sure way to attract Mockingbirds at any time of the year is to sit out a red apple or two at your feeder. Mockingbirds absolutely love apples. They also enjoy partaking of raisins, among other dried fruit. In fact, the reason I had a Mockingbird at my feeder recently, unusual in late Spring, is because the brand of seed I had purchased included bits of cherries and apricots. The Mockingbird was meticulously picking out the fruit among the seed.

Getting back to Mockingbirds being risk takers, I have a couple of personal stories to this effect.  One year, a Mockingbird developed a habit of listening for my garage door to open. I would notice when I arrived home from work that the Mockingbird would quickly fly down and perch on my fence near the driveway. I thought he was becoming my “special friend” but instead I soon discovered he was hanging out to daringly sweep into my garage and devour as much dry cat food as he could before I let the garage door back down!  I also found a Mockingbird perched in one of my interior hanging baskets one day when I arrived home from work.   While I have always had cats, there was no evidence of disturbed feathers inside or out, so the Mockingbird must have voluntarily let himself in through the doggie door. I cannot think of another species of bird that would have the inclination to do this.  And, no doubt, the Mockingbird ate a bit of my dog’s food (situated under the hanging basket) while in the house!

Last, but certainly not least, about the Mockingbird is the fascinating reason for its namesake. Mockingbirds do just that – they mock. Although Mockingbirds certainly have their own song versions, it is thought they are capable of mocking over 50 other types of birds. -And not only do they mock birds, they have been known to mock squirrels, dogs and even squeaky doors! Scientists believe the reason Mockingbirds show off their incredible range of vocals is to attract mates. The more songs and sounds a Mockingbird can make, the larger his experience and territory is thought to be. I guess prestige counts in the animal world too! In fact, if you hear the sweet solo of a bird singing in the dark of night, it is most likely a Mockingbird promoting his talents.

I encourage you the next time you see a Mockingbird to take a few moments to observe and listen to him. You may be surprised what you learn about this common, but very unique bird. (Yes, my title is an oxymoron – but it fits!)

Fun Fact:
The Mockingbird is the official state bird of 5 states: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

Until next time,


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Purple Coneflower – Echinacea Purpurea

Originally posted 5/24/2011
Purple Coneflower

Purple Coneflower

Although my home landscape has slowly transitioned from a full sun setting to a part shade environment due to the maturity of my trees, I strive to find at least a couple of spots for sun-loving plants. After all, there are many, many beautiful bloomers that prefer full, to mostly full, sun. I would not wish to be without a few of these sun worshipers to admire each summer.

A sun-loving, easy to grow perennial that I enjoy very much is the Purple Coneflower. This plant, native to the midwestern and southeastern United States, stands an impressive 2.5 to 3 feet tall and produces rather large flower heads at a size about equal to the perimeter of a baseball. The spiny, burnt orange center of the flower vibrantly contrasts against its smooth lavender petals. As the plant sends up stalks in the late spring, you will see multiples of these flower heads begin to emerge. First, they appear upright and shaped like daisies but as the flower continues to mature, its petals bend further and further back, reminiscent of a bold warrior baring his proud chest to the sun.

Purple Coneflower in Full Bloom

Purple Coneflower in Full Bloom

Probably the greatest attribute of the Purple Coneflower is its staying power. The flowers are very long-lasting on the stalk and if you wish to bring their beauty indoors, they will stay fresh a full week as cut flowers. However, by allowing the flowers to remain on the stalk and go to seed, you will be certain to attract a variety of butterflies and eventually, small birds to your property. Much like they do with sunflowers, birds (especially finches) will flock to partake of the dried seed found in the center of the Purple Coneflower.

An interesting aspect of the Purple Coneflower has nothing to do with its appearance. As you’ve browsed the vitamin and supplement aisle at the local drug or grocery store, there is no doubt you have seen Echinacea tablets and/or tinctures on the shelf. Purple Coneflower, also known by its scientific name, Echinacea, has been used as an herb to promote the immune system and shorten the lifespan of ailments, such as the common cold and sore throat, for centuries. Evidence of seed pods excavated at ancient American Indian archaeological sites suggest the plant was used for medicinal purposes in the US over 400 years ago.

But, I must caution, Echinacea may not be safe for everyone. While I very much believe in the benefits of vitamins, minerals and some herbs, I will not take Echinacea – for two reasons. Numero uno – remember I compared Purple Coneflower to daisies and sunflowers? Well, it turns out they are all part of the same family – Asterceae. Incidentally, another plant that is part of the Astercea family is Ragweed – a plant of which I am highly allergic!  Secondly, because Echinacea is thought to enhance a person’s immune system, it is not usually recommended for anyone with an autoimmune condition. Persons with autoimmune conditions, such as allergies, arthritis, lupus, MS, etc., already have an over-active immune system and Echinacea could very well make their condition worse.  The bottom line is to be sure and consult with your physician before taking any supplement, especially Echinacea.

So, while I can appreciate the history and medicinal uses of the Purple Coneflower, I must remain content just sowing and growing it. But as you can see from the photos above, it is a stunning ornamental that can easily be admired, even from a distance.

I hope you consider adding a little purple to one of your sunny spots!

Until next time –


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Dwarf Mexican Petunia – Best “South of the Border” Plant

Original Post Date 5/25/2011
Close Up of Dwarf Mexican Petunia

Close Up of Dwarf Mexican Petunia

In my opinion, the perfect border plant is Dwarf Mexican Petunia or Ruellia brittoniana. Although originating from Mexico and unlike the “south of the border” pun in my title, Dwarf Mexican Petunia is hardy in the United States up through Zone 8 and depending on seasonal low temps, is a tender perennial through Zone 7. You might even see it come back in Zone 6 if you mulch and protect it through winter.

Dwarf Mexican Petunia is a low growing, clumping plant with lance-shaped dark green leaves that in the summertime produces vibrant violet, pastel pink or snow white flowers depending on the variety. The greenery of Dwarf Mexican Petunia reminds me of the clean lines of typical low growing, edging plants such as liriope and mondo grass, but it has the added bonus of creating beautiful blooms! Speaking of blooms, although its flowers are tubular and very similar in shape and size to a pentunia’s, interestingly, Ruellia brittoniana is not related to the petunia family. Instead, it is of the Acanthaceae family, which oddly also includes the shrimp plant and black-eyed Susan vine.

Bed of Dwarf Mexican Petunias

Bed of Dwarf Mexican Petunias

For many years, I have had violet Dwarf Mexican Petunia planted as edging along my large flower bed in the back yard. It has been extremely dependable as a perennial in my area of Zone 8. It enjoys full sun but will tolerate part shade, although the more sun it receives the more it will bloom. Dwarf Mexican Petunia is drought tolerant and I have actually seen it referred to as a desert plant, however, all agree it does best if it receives water on a regular basis. Since making my first purchase of a few plants several years ago that I widely scattered around the perimeter of my flower bed, I have not had to make another purchase although I now have a thick, healthy continuous row of them. This is because Dwarf Mexican Petunia not only returns more vigorously every year, it dependably re-seeds and oftentimes produces, what I call, “babies” every year through rhizomes. When you find a new plant or two (or three or four) developing outside of your planting area, simply dig them up with a spade and move them to any desired spot as Dwarf Mexican Petunia transplants very well. In fact, if a bare spot develops in one of my patio planters, I usually place a Dwarf Mexican Petunia seedling in the space as it is a great blooming filler plant and its leaves drape over the sides of containers very elegantly.

As I mentioned above, after the first year of planting you will surely find new Dwarf Mexican Petunia plants growing outside of your designated area. Believe me, you will sometimes find them far from your original planting area! Late one fall afternoon several years ago, I actually witnessed the reason I find little plants growing in my sidewalk crevices, across the patio, and some, deep into the back yard. As I typically do after work, I had walked onto the patio to admire how my garden was growing (most likely with a glass of Pinot Noir) when I heard this continuous popping noise. It sounded like when you first pour milk onto your Rice Crispies cereal. The noise was incredibly puzzling to me and I was bound and determined to find its source. I suspected some odd, destructive bug had probably invaded my flower bed, but upon closer look there was no sign of any type of grasshopper, cricket or otherwise. As I leaned even closer to the soil, I was able to conclude the noise was indeed originating at ground level, but still, I could see no obvious cause. I then decided to lie down on the ground and focus intently on watching my flower bed. (I said I was determined.) As I lay there for a while, I actually witnessed a seed pod from a Dwarf Mexican Petunia pop wide open and literally spit about a dozen seeds in the air and onto the patio! What I had been hearing was the pods popping open and the seeds landing on my concrete patio. It was quite a sight and certainly reinforced to me that plants are indeed extraordinary living things and their interesting growing behaviors have purpose!

In conclusion, if you’d like to add a nice border to your beds and/or insert a little texture to your containers, I urge you to purchase a few Dwarf Mexican Petunias and give them a try. If you already have some, dig up a few “babies” that are surely sprouting up these days and share their beauty with your family and friends.

Side note: I’d like to mention there exists a non-dwarf Mexican Petunia as well. It is also a gorgeous plant that tolerates the same conditions as the dwarf variety. It is less dense in foliage and stands about 2.5 – 3 feet tall and thus, is not appropriate as a border plant. If you are specifically looking for Mexican Petunia as a nice edging plant, be sure to read the tag and note that you are purchasing the dwarf variety.

Until next time-


Update: If you wish to grow from seed, I will be happy to send some to you as I collect them this upcoming fall (Sept/Oct 2015). Please send your name and address via comment or email (I will not publish) and I’ll be happy to send some your way. They are extremely easy to grow from seed and you’ll love the results, I promise! The only thing I can’t promise is the color of the bloom as I have white mixed with blue at this “new” residence, but blue will be the dominant color.

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Bromeliad Success!

Bromeliad Pup Blooming after Two Years Bromeliad Mature Pup Side View

While I still haven’t transferred all of my blog posts to this site, I wanted to jump in today with a very brief (and current!) blog post and brag about how well my bromeliad “pup” from 2 1/2 years ago is doing!

The gorgeous plant pictured above is the result of patience and (minimal) care given to the cutting you see planted in the center pot of the photo below.

mother bromeliad and pups 3

It thrills me to actually witness a plant, animal, bird or weather condition respond and progress just as I’ve read or heard that it should.  You may say that 2 1/2 years is a long time to wait for a plant to bloom, and you’d be right.  However, I just kept the greenery at my desk in the background near a north window, along with some other plantings, and let it be – with the exception of watering it now and then (be sure and read the post at the link below regarding how to water bromeliads.)  Although the bromeliad wasn’t blooming during this two-year period, it was providing me a nice “green” plant to admire and reap filtered air benefits from while working in my office.  And, now that it is blooming, it will continue to develop even deeper color for months.

Perhaps you have recently received one of these beautiful tropicals?  Don’t toss it away after it has bloomed.  Give it some time to develop ratoons (off shoots or “pups”) and begin the process I describe at Bringing up Bromeliads and you just may have a family line of bromeliads to enjoy for yourself for a good, long while.

Until next time,



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What’s Eating Your Petunias?

 Originally posted July 2012
 golden mantel ground squirrel eating petuniasGolden-Mantled Ground Squirrel at Seven Falls in Manitou Springs, Colorado   Photo by Cindy Pierce June 2012

The above photo is by far one of my favorites of all time. I took it a few weeks ago while vacationing in Colorado. My boyfriend and I broke away from the rest of the extended family and took my mom on a special day of local excursions in the southern area of Colorado. Along with the famous Pike’s Peak Cog Railway, we also visited Seven Falls – a beautiful canyon area in Manitou Springs that boasts a tall, seven level waterfall. There are several ways you can view the seven-level waterfall – from the ground, from a viewing platform a few stories high, and from the top of the canyon via a steep and lengthy, zig-zag staircase. You can also view the falls at night when they are lighted with many colors. While my boyfriend and I took the quick elevator ride up to the mid-level viewing platform, my mom decided to hang out at the base. Along the creek and pathways of the park, hung large double hanging baskets of beautiful, healthy red, white and purple petunias. My mom appeared to be intently admiring these flower baskets as my boyfriend and I tried to get her attention from the viewing platform for a photo op. No luck. When we arrived back down at base, my mom began laughing and telling us how a ground squirrel was sprawled in the middle of one of the Petunia baskets, eating away at the flowers. I thought it must’ve been a funny sight and wondered just how the Petunias stayed so abundant with the number of ground squirrels around. As my boyfriend decided to take the trek up to the top of the falls, my mom and I sat on a park bench, watched the Native American dancers and simply took in the scenery. We watched the rainbow trout swim in the nearby pond and the chipmunks and ground squirrels dart around and scoop up crumbs of dropped tourist food. Suddenly, I saw a rather large ground squirrel appear in the center of one of the Petunia baskets right next to us. Camera in hand, I snapped several photos as the critter rapidly tore off Petunia blooms one at a time and stuffed them in its mouth. She was absolutely adorable (if you look closely at the photo, “she” appears to have nursing babies). I’m sure the maintenance crews at Seven Falls probably don’t find the squirrels quite as adorable as we did. I’m sure they are tasked with replacing the flowers in the baskets quite often. But, then again, perhaps the squirrels provide a natural deadheading and trimming service, enabling the plant to regenerate? *More on this later . . .

squirrel #2

Witnessing how rapid this one little squirrel devoured multiple blooms, it reminded me of how quickly a newly planted bed of Petunias can disappear from our yards at home. From my research, it appears that white tail deer, rabbits, and all types of rodents (including squirrels) enjoy the taste of Petunias. The vibrantly colored blooms are like neon signs beckoning these mammals to come over and partake of them.

In addition to animals, insects seem to very much enjoy Petunias as well, especially worms and most especially, the tobacco hornworm. Petunias are of the Solanaceae family, commonly known as the nightshade family. The nightshade family is a large family of flowering plants; their flowers being tubular or semi-tubular, with some flower varieties having fused petals. If you look closely at a Petunia’s bloom, you will see the margins of its fused petals.

The nightshade family consists of both very popular edible plants and in contrast, very toxic plants – some fatally toxic, such as belladonna. Among the important agricultural plants of the nightshade family are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes. I find it quite ironic that some of the most common vegetables we eat, perhaps on a daily basis (think tomatoes on hamburgers, in salsa, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, etc.) are found in the same classification as deadly belladonna!

However, speaking of the toxicity of nightshades, some of the plants in this family are toxic in high doses but are helpful and/or useful in smaller doses. For example, extracts of some of the plants of this family are used to curb the nausea of motion sickness and in chemotherapy patients. Also, the capsaicin extract of peppers is used in pepper spray – a personal safety device that sprays and temporarily stuns people and other mammals. Another interesting plant of the nightshade family is nicotiana or tobacco. I suppose the effect nicotine has on the body can certainly be described as drug-like or addictive when we consider the many different effects the varied nightshade plants have on the body. It has been determined it is the alkaloid compounds of nightshades that give the plant its helpful and/or harmful attributes.

Although there is no consensus among researchers, it is thought best for people suffering from nerve, muscle and/or joint conditions to limit or avoid food of the nightshade family due to the inflammatory effects alkaloids may have on these body functions. It is good to note here also, that if you have heard the old wives’ tale to avoid eating green potatoes, you may wish to take heed. While it is the chlorophyll in the potato that actually makes it green, the color also corresponds with a higher presence of alkaloids. Same with green tomatoes. If you have a form of arthritis, as do I, but absolutely love one or more of the nightshade veggies, it is good to note that cooking them reduces the amount of alkaloids by about 40 – 50%. So, cooked tomatoes are less “toxic” than those just out of the garden. I admit I still eat tomatoes in both manners, but I just don’t overdo it either way. As you know, there are very good compounds found in tomatoes too – such as Vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene.

Well, back to Petunias and what eats them. You may be able to guess that Petunias fall into a benign branch of the nightshade family that is safe for mammals to eat versus one of the highly poisonous or deadly branches. While Petunias do possess alkaloids like the rest of the nightshades, it does not possess the highly toxic form. And because the vibrant, sweet-tasting blooms of Petunias are borne without thorns or thistles, critters find them irresistible and easy to eat. In addition to mammals devouring your Petunias, as I mentioned earlier, some worms are especially attracted to nightshades as well. The tobacco hornworm (a very large, bright green worm) that you can guess – loves the nightshade plant, tobacco – really isn’t all that discerning when tobacco isn’t around. This worm will attack any nightshade plant, including your tomato, pepper and potato plants. Of course, it likes Petunias as well!

tobacco hornworm

Tobacco Hornworm courtesy of http://coopext.colostate.edu/4dmg/Pests/tomato.htm

An interesting side note is Morning Glory and Moonflower Vine were once considered a part of the nightshade family in the past, but their family has been changed, of late, to Convolvulaceae. If you go one classification step up, however, they remain in the same Order as nightshades and have some of the same flower and alkaloid characteristics. The reason I bring this up is because their flowers are very similar to Petunias in shape and size and you’ll see the tobacco hornworm likes feasting on the leaves of these vines as well. In addition, if you have both Moonflowers and Petunias in your landscape, the large, hummingbird-sized parent moths of these worms (Sphinx Moths) will visit both flowers equally!

So, just what can you do to keep your Petunias full and healthy, or at least alive, this season? With regard to mammals like the cute little critter in the photo at the top of my blog post, ironically, the use of another nightshade plant may be the best solution!

Spraying diluted hot pepper juice or sprinkling hot pepper flakes around your ornamentals and vegetables may help dissuade these critters’ palates. I would administer the pepper spray in the late evening hours so the sun does not intensify the solution, however. About the tobacco hornworm? The pepper juice spray might help, but then again sometimes the hornworm actually eats green peppers so simply removing the gargantuan worms by hand (ugh) may be the best way to control them. While I don’t like to handle insects by hand, I still find them fascinating and would never purposely kill them (yellow jackets are an exception, btw!).

Personally, I love the mature moths that the hornworms develop into and simply find the larvae don’t do that much damage to my ornamentals and therefore I do not do anything to specifically deter them from my yard. I often see their droppings but resign myself to knowing I’ll have more moths to admire in late summer/early fall. (Yes, these worms are big enough to have droppings to see and in fact, this is one way to locate them on your plants. For as big as they are – they are incredibly hard to see as they excellently blend with the greenery.) If you have kiddos or are a curious adult, click http://www.birds-n-garden.com/white-lined_sphinx_hummingbird_moths.html to see how to raise the tobacco hornworms you pick off your plants and transform them into gorgeous, iridescent, hummingbird-sized Sphinx Moths.

*Keep in mind, if your efforts to reduce damage to your Petunias by animals or insects are less than successful, do not fret if you still have roots and stems intact. Oftentimes, with a little pampering, you may be able to bring forth a stronger plant as Petunias are known to bounce back more fully when trimmed and deadheaded.

Taking into consideration:

– overindulging in edible nightshades may aggravate illness, but eliminating them entirely will cause you to miss out on vitmains and antioxidants;

– overindulgence of some compounds of nightshades may kill you, while small quantities may indeed heal you; and,

– aggressively ridding every pest from your nightshades may burn them (pepper juice) or cause leggy overgrowth, allowing a few pests to “trim” the plants may actually promote regeneration;

I’d like to end this post today by saying I believe we can view the contrasting properties of the fascinating plants of the nightshade family as a perfect justification of the age-old adage,  Moderation in All Things . . .

Until next time,



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Embracing a Kinder and Gentler New Year

Spilled Wine
Originally posted December 2011

This post may not qualify as a typical “Nature is Nurture” excerpt, but I’ve toyed with writing the story for several years and I believe it is fitting for the New Year – especially for those of us that may have experienced loss and are looking forward to a brighter future.

As with every year in our lives, there are good and bad experiences. There are gains and there are losses.

I’ve lost two close family members to unexpected deaths within the past 24 months. Mourning must run its course as I learn to embrace and honor my loved ones’ memories. Their lives meant, and still mean, more to me than I can articulate. If your past year included such a loss or losses, strive to be ever so gentle with yourself in the coming year as you, too, will learn to live life fully again, but with a new “normal.”

Well, there are other losses some of us may have experienced this past year, such as jobs, homes, friendships, and/or marriages. In no way do I wish to minimize the validity of feeling sad and depressed when experiencing the loss of one or more of these tangible items. However, I truly believe some of these losses may indeed be cause for pause and reflection. This is where I’d like to begin my brief, but poignant, New Year’s Eve story:

Six years ago I divorced during Christmas week. I did not initiate the proceedings yet I ended up being the sole partner reporting in front of the judge that deciding day. The judge hit his gavel and said, “Divorce granted.  Merry Christmas.” The divorce was devastating to me in more ways than one. However, at the time, I did not realize it was the marriage itself that was the true devastating force upon my life.

Having endured Christmas week as a self-labeled newly divorced, middle-aged woman with tons of loose ends to tie up, I was not looking forward to the New Year, let alone celebrating New Year’s Eve. In fact, I had planned to have a quiet night alone contemplating how I would eventually furnish and repair my empty, damaged home (another story for another time, perhaps.) Instead, at the last minute, I accepted an invitation from a very kind woman I had met indirectly at work. This woman exuded positivity and enthusiasm and had an awesome zest for life, although her family had also experienced divorce that particular year. She had invited a varied group of people in age, marital status and ethnicity to celebrate the New Year together in her home. We honored traditions, danced to a variety of music and partook of delicious food and drink from several cultures that evening. It was by far the best New Year’s Eve I had ever experienced in spite of my depression over my divorce.

During one especially festive dance that night, in which we were all hand in hand, a child accidentally struck and spilled a glass of red wine onto the light carpet. My mind instantly went into auto-pilot as I sucked in my breath and ran to the kitchen to find a cloth, all the while spontaneously coming to tears. I feared yelling, belittlement and very harsh admonishment for the child. I also expected the host would become irate and the festivities would surely end. I was prepared to leave.

Not so! The attendees broke into applause, yelled “Opa! Opa!”, and danced even more feverishly – they didn’t miss a beat! They congratulated the child for the spill of wine as it meant “Good Luck” to all present for the coming New Year. They celebrated an occurrence that would have without a doubt been cause for an evening of hostility and tears in my former life.

I am forever grateful I accepted the invitation that night to celebrate the coming of the New Year as part of a caring and wonderful, multi-generational and multi-cultural group. This remarkable gathering of people taught me there is a positive side to most everything in life if you choose to look for it – and – there is no sense in crying over anything spilled! The significance of their celebratory reaction to the spilled red wine brought to light I was indeed mourning the end of a very unhealthy relationship – a relationship that should’ve ended long before and one which I should be oh so grateful wasn’t entering the New Year. Needless to say, I cultivated a refreshingly new perspective on life that New Year’s Eve of 2006.

No matter the losses you have experienced this past year, I hope you realize you have the power to place yourself in kinder and gentler environments and surround yourself with kinder and gentler people.

In the coming year and beyond, my wish is that you stay ever so close to the people, places and things that truly nurture you.

Happy New Year!


In my research for this post, I learned in most European cultures (especially in Italy) it is considered Good Luck to spill wine as it is symbolic of the ancients giving thanks by “sharing” a bit of the fermented bounty with the soil of the vineyard that produced it.  http://www.schonwalder.org/Menu_Wine_TheBestofaMistake.htm


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After Christmas Amaryllis


Originally posted January 2012

Although we are in the midst of winter and some of us have landscapes covered in snow, we gardeners can enjoy getting our hands dirty and satisfy our urge to sow by planting a few Amaryllis bulbs indoors. The bonus with planting an Amaryllis indoors is, unlike most “house” plants, it will result in large, beautiful, lily-like blooms within a few weeks – some with double or multiple blooms. (See the pic below of the one I am growing now – it appears it will have two separate stems.)

Amaryllis Coleus CrownofThorns
Amaryllis Bulb at southern-facing window with blooming Crown of Thorns and Coleus in the background.

 As I began researching this topic, I found a couple of Web sites to refer you to that pretty much say it all, along with complimentary picture diagrams, thus, I will spare you the details of planting and care here except to say that it is VERY easy. If you haven’t tried Amaryllis bulbs before, I urge you to do so now while the timing and price is right. The only prerequisite before purchasing a bulb kit is that you have a nice, sunny window with a lot of space. Amaryllis requires bright light to sprout and plenty of room to grow as it can reach 18 -24 inches tall. Yes, they are big plants! In the U.S. and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, the best place for Amaryllis to grow would be near a spacious southern facing window in either your home or office.

However, once your plant begins to bloom, usually in about 5 – 8 weeks, you should move it away from direct sunlight so that the blooms will stay fresh for a longer period of time.

Amaryllis care web sites:

Now, to the main point of this relatively short blog post for me – as I hinted above, you can purchase these gorgeous plants at this time of year on clearance for about $3 each or less. Some Amaryllis are offered in a kit which includes everything you need: the bulb, a dehydrated potting soil disk, brief instructions, and a plastic, but useful, pot. I feel especially fortunate because I found my Amaryllis kit at Target this past weekend (January 7) for $2.98 and it included a nice, roomy ceramic red pot. The pot alone is worth $2.98 in my opinion! At Target, they had a choice in colors of both pots and blooms. I chose a deep red blooming plant to match my deep red ceramic pot, but they offered white, pink and striped blooming varieties in either a red or white ceramic pot. In addition to Target, I have seen Amaryllis bulb kits on clearance at ridiculously low prices at Wal-Mart, Lowes and Home Depot as well. Before you buy, though, peek into the pot to see if the bulb has sprouted and bloomed on its own over the holidays. Some of those on the higher shelves at Target (where they were exposed to bright fluorescent light) had prematurely bloomed inside the pot. Once I delved into the ones stacked toward the back on the lower shelves, I was able to find plenty of bulbs that were at their prime for potting (a little green popping through the bulb is OK).

So, next time you are out doing your grocery shopping or scanning the after-Christmas clearance aisles at your local home improvement store, spring for a couple of Amaryllis bulb kits! In a few weeks, as winter continues its barren path, you’ll be happy to have a little taste of springtime to admire indoors.

Until next time,


For you green-thumbed guys out there, here’s a hint:  If you hurry, you may be able to present your sweetheart with a very nice blooming Valentine – just look for a bulb that has already begun to sprout, which shouldn’t be hard to find at this time of year. While I don’t want to get anyone into trouble that is expected to annually present roses, Amaryllis also blooms in the colors of love . . . red, white, and pink.  Plus, an Amaryllis will last longer than cut roses and bloom time and again with proper care. I know I’d appreciate one from my sweetheart, but then again, I love ALL PLANTS equally so please give at your own risk!


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Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope

stonehenge winter soltice
**Originally posted in December, 2011.

December 21st is the shortest day of the year. You probably are asking, “What do you mean the shortest day of the year? Aren’t there 24 hours in every day?” Absolutely, but allow me to be more specific. December 21st is the date in which there was less daylight hours than any other day in 2011. It is the time of the winter solstice – which in Central Standard Time will occur around 11:30 p.m. this year. The winter solstice usually occurs sometime between December 21 and December 23 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the time of the year when the North Pole is tilted at its greatest distance, 23.5 degrees, away from the sun. The winter solstice also signifies the first day of winter. At the time of the autumnal equinox, September 23rd, daylight and dark were equal in length at 12 hours each. Since then, in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight has progressively decreased with each day. In fact, territories north of the Arctic Circle will experience 24 hours of darkness upon the winter solstice. It is important to mention this seasonal phenomenon is reverse for the Southern Hemisphere. For example, the territory south of the Antarctic Circle will experience 24 hours of daylight on December 21st. And, in the areas between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the balance of daylight and dark hours remains stable and the weather warm and humid. (Thus the reason we must mimic the 12 hours of darkness for native tropical photoperiodic plants such as the Christmas Cactus and Poinsettia to force their blooms/bracts in our part of the world!)

If you’ve done any reading or research about ancient cultures, you are familiar with the fact they viewed the transitions between the seasons as very important. The solstices and equinoxes determined when crops should be planted and harvested, when berries and nuts became ripe and when certain game could be hunted. The winter solstice, in particular, marked the time ancient peoples were to begin preparing  and storing food and supplies, obtained from their autumn harvests and hunts, in anticipation of the next three months of cold weather. Ancient civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Druids, Egyptians, Greeks, Mayans, Phoenicians and Romans, among others, erected incredibly accurate temples, pyramids, monuments and calendars that assisted their villages in knowing when the seasonal changes were occurring. Stonehenge, in the photo above, is an example of such a structure. The photo below is of the Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. It is a mounded tomb structure that is estimated to have been built in 3200 BC. There is a roof box over the entrance of the tomb which at sunrise during the winter solstice, a shaft of sunlight breaks through and illuminates the entire interior of the structure.


As with human rites of passage, celebrations and feasts were a major aspect of the ancient seasonal transitions as well, especially during the winter solstice. Fruit and nuts were plenty, beer and wine were fermented and animals thought not to survive through the winter were slaughtered. Food was in abundance at this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere and feasting was done in preparation for potentially 90 days of sparse sustenance. Festivities surrounding mid-winter holidays certainly continue in most cultures of the world today. In fact, Julius Caesar deemed December 25th the date of the winter solstice in early Roman times. And as most of you know, later on, the Christian church adopted this sacred date in honor of the birth of Christ.

In conclusion, you may ask why I have titled this post, Winter Solstice – A Time of Hope, when it apparently marks the time of anticipated harsh, cold weather.  As I pondered all the reasons, the scientific one came to mind first. Every day after December 21st brings more sunlight. The ancients knew if they prepared what food and supplies they could for the coming of winter and feasted on that which remained, each day they survived offered them more sunlight and eventual warmth. Hope simply helped them endure the season of long bitter nights and barren days. In today’s world, the winter solstice falls at the time of year (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa) when most of us, no matter our religious persuasion, strive to mend relationships, are charitable to those in need, and reflect on our personal blessings. It is a time of faith and observance and thanksgiving. It is a time we come together to congratulate and to celebrate. It is a time we come together and mourn those no longer with us – yet we remain determined to continue the traditions that have become all the more meaningful in our loved ones’ absence. It is a time we deeply reflect upon our life and muster the determination to live better physically, emotionally and spiritually in the coming year.

christmas star

As a Christian, I believe the date of the Roman winter solstice was purposefully chosen to represent Christmas Day, as the spirit of Christmas signifies great hope for all mankind. No matter your faith or circumstances, I wish you the amazing experience of hope this winter season.

Until next time,

vincent on drums


This post is dedicated to my nephew, Vincent, who was born 13 years ago on the shortest day of the year!


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