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Feeder Finches


This house finch made me laugh. I can imagine him saying, “Hey, guys! Over here!” (It’s just one of the many ways I entertain myself—thinking about what birds think.)

It wasn’t long before several of his friends rushed over, so I guess they heeded the message.

Female House Finch

House finches are native to the American southwest. We might not see them in the east at all if not for some unethical pet shop owners in New York City. In the early 1900s, these merchants who were selling the birds illegally, released them into the wild to avoid penalties. The house finch quickly began to establish itself in the East. Now they’re as common here as in the West, unfortunately displacing our native purple finch as they expand their range.

It’s interesting to note that east coast house finches are all more closely related to each other than to the west coast birds. Male coloration is usually red, but there is a yellow variant believed to be due to diet rather than genetics. Hawaii has more birds with this variation than the continent does.

Male House Finch

As is often the case, the camera picked up details that this bird watcher’s eye missed. Namely, a very dirty feeder! How could I not have noticed that before I took the pictures? A timely newsletter from Birdhouse on the Greenway (a wonderful store, if you’re in the Charlotte area), suggested cleaning our rain-soaked feeders right away. Just empty all the seed out—dig it out if it’s especially mushy—and put the feeders into a bucket of water with about a half cup of vinegar for a while. After soaking, scrub them out, let them dry in the sun, and refill them with fresh, clean seed. It’s a simple task that makes the feeders healthier for the birds—and more attractive in photos!

A Fresh New Year

Roadside Water Runoff

It was a warm and very wet December. To say we’re saturated is an understatement.

Lichen and Hemlock

The rain has brought down lichen covered branches all over the yard.

Turkey Tail Fungus

Turkey tail fungus thrives on the rotting logs.

Jelly Fungus

Gooey jelly fungus drips from the end of a broken branch.

Mahonia Flowers

The unseasonable weather has accelerated the bloom schedule for lots of plants. These mahonia blooms add some sunshine to the lengthy string of gray days.

Ilex latifolia buds

Lusterleaf holly (Ilex latifolia) makes a yellow contribution, too.

Dried Oakleaf Hydrangea

2015’s skeletal remnants hang from an oakleaf hydrangea.

Red Camellia

Professor Charles Sargent camellia has been a joy through the Advent season. The blooms—still beautiful and whole—fall to the ground among fresh new daffodil shoots.

Under the Camellia

Old is shed, and new emerges…it’s how the garden grows.

White Hellebore

Happy New Year, everyone!

Acoustic Christmas

Christmas Presents

Years ago, when I was busy with little babies (and also pretty broke), my single sister used to try to keep me up to date music-wise by making cassette tapes of artists and tracks she thought I would like, and sending them to me. I really loved that. I listened to some of those tapes until the magnetic coating flaked off of the film — for years and years! Times have changed, and among other things we don’t listen to cassettes anymore, but I still love getting music suggestions from both of my sisters. It’s in that spirit of sharing music that I made a Christmas “tape” on SoundCloud. It’s eclectic, but primarily acoustic. I’ve included some old, some new, folk, indie, a little pop — I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I did making it. Merry Christmas!

Sarcococca confusa

Sarcococca Flowers

Scientific name: Sarcococca confusa

Common names: Sweetbox, sweet box, Christmas box, winter box

Family: Buxaceae

Nativity: China

Location: Oakleaf Woods, Charlotte, NC

Date: December 7, 2015

Notes: I love this plant! Thick evergreen leaves are tough and attractive, and when sweetbox blooms (in winter!) it is wonderfully fragrant. Flowers are creamy white and they dangle in bunches from every node. After blooming, black berries form, which often persist until next year’s blooms open.  Sweetbox will grow in deep, dry shade, which makes it useful for areas not hospitable to other things. It will tolerate some sun if more water is provided. Mine are planted as foundation plants and get small amounts of early morning or late afternoon sun. I do recommend placing them near your door if you plant them. They are not as large or prickly as osmanthus, but smell just as nice, and stepping out the door to that scent this time of year is uplifting.

Sweetbox Flowers and Fruits

Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery notes that Sarcococca confusa has not been seen in the wild and, in fact, is probably a hybrid of two other Sarcococca species, S. ruscifolia var. chinensis and S. hookeriana var. digyna. Given the variety name, I love how you can see two styles sticking from each of these berries.

Momiji Tempura — Fried Maple Leaves

Fried Maple Leaf with Syrup

Last week I saw something on Facebook that I had never seen before — fried maple leaves! Did you know maple leaves are edible? It makes sense since we use the sap to get maple syrup, but I had never considered it. In fact, all parts of maple trees have been eaten or otherwise used by our ancestors.

Washed Japanese Maple LeavesAnd apparently, Japan has a thing for them. They are a tradition in Osaka, where they are served as a seasonal treat. Like potato chips, they’re even available in snack-sized bags.

The custom of eating fried maple leaves — mimoji —  may have started as much as 1,300 years ago at the Mino Otaki waterfall in Osaka. Ascetics in search of enlightenment would travel to this beautiful waterfall in pilgrimage.

I imagine it might have been hunger that prompted one visitor to try eating the leaves, but maybe it was purely a desire to become one with the natural beauty. For whatever reason, s/he fried them in oil and ate them, and began giving them to other visitors as they arrived. A tradition was born.

Realizing I won’t be sampling these beside a lovely waterfall in Japan any time soon, I knew I had to try making them at home. I’m sure you’ll be thoroughly shocked, as I was, to know that there are virtually no recipes for momiji in English.

Fortunately, James Wong of The Homegrown Revolution created one, so I started with that. I didn’t stick to it very well, but it didn’t seem to matter too much.

In Japan, the leaves are packed in a salty brine for a year before frying, but since maple leaves are edible raw, and since James Wong didn’t wait any time to make his, I skipped the “wait one year” part of the traditional recipes.

Japanese Maple Leaves in SaltI did decide to layer them in dry salt overnight for reasons that escape me now. I liked the idea of a salty leaf with a sweetish batter, I suppose. The salt dried the leaves and made them stiff, which turned out to be a good thing when I dipped them in the batter. Those petioles made for perfect little handles, too.

For the batter, I mixed a quarter of a cup of unbleached flour with one tablespoon of cornstarch, a pinch of salt, and about a half cup of Trader Joe’s ginger beer — thin enough to dip the leaves into easily but thick enough not to glob up.

I fried them in about half an inch of canola oil, which was plenty, but a deep fryer would be good too. I only made a few so I used a tiny pan (a 5″ cast iron mini skillet) and just did a couple at a time. The salt-brined leaves in Japan take about 20 minutes to brown up, but mine were much quicker — maybe 3 or 4 minutes? I flipped them a time or two.

So how did they taste? And are they worth it?

They tasted a little spicy, which I believe was mostly the ginger beer coming through. The leaves themselves had very little taste raw and even less cooked. I love the shape and the crunch, so I think they could be fun to use as a garnish on a dessert — or what about a fall-y salad like Waldorf? Or maybe an An Asian chicken salad, or even a spinach salad. Some of you will have better ideas…I hope you’ll mention them in the comments.

Fried Maple LeavesMy picky husband, whose initial response to, “Want to try one?,” was a skeptical, “Nah, thanks, I grazed the woods before I came in,” did eventually take a nibble. He doesn’t like sweet, so I dipped one in an Asian vinaigrette for him. He wasn’t particularly impressed, but he did eat the whole thing. You could say he’s in the Why Bother camp.

But, my daughter was impressed enough with the presentation — a dab of maple syrup and powdered sugar — that she gobbled one and gave it a thumbs up.

So, yes, I would say tasty and worth it, too – they’re crunchy, salty, sweet, pretty, and fun!




I found the history/legend of mimoji tempura here:

Interesting aside: While they are fine for humans, maple leaves are quite poisonous to horses.


Thanks to Julie at Garden Delights for expanding my food horizons by posting about fried maple leaves on her Facebook page last week!

Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’

Roundleaf Sweetgum

Scientific name: Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’

Common names: Round-lobed sweetgum, roundleaf sweetgum, alligator-wood

Family: Altingiaceae

Nativity: Eastern North America, parts of Central America

Location: Charlotte, NC

Date: December 5, 2015

Notes: Liquidambar styraciflua, our common native sweetgum, typically has pointed, star-shaped leaves. The sweetgum with round-lobed leaves was discovered in the forests of North Carolina back in the 1930s. It has since been cultivated, but generally considered a rarity. In recent years, it has become more widely available.

I have begun to notice these more and more being used as street trees. Rotundiloba is sterile — no spiny fruits to deal with — which makes it a good choice for this, or for general landscape use. It is also has a narrower spread than the species, which can be a plus.

The fall color of sweetgums is intense and can involve a range of shades from yellow through the oranges and every shade of red all the way to burgundy-black, sometimes all on the same tree at one time. Crushed leaves emit a characteristic spicy scent.

Roundleaf Sweetgum Street Tree

Oaks, Houseplants, and an Orchid Model

Dear Friends,

Flowering Dogwood Fall Foliage

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
Fall is beautiful and lasts a long time in the Carolina piedmont.

How is autumn treating you? I usually have a hard time with the shortening days and the cool temperatures, and do not look forward to this time of year. But this year I started walking at the beginning of November, using the “happy” light my mother gave me a few years ago, taking vitamin D, and drinking the occasional vitamin dense smoothie to try to keep ahead of the doldrums. It seems to be working! Now the trick is to avoid getting overwhelmed through the holidays, but so far, so good.

Sweetgum Tree and Blue December Sky

Sweetgum tree against the bluest skies we’ve had in weeks!

During my daily walks, I’ve been trying to identify all the leaves along the sidewalk. I’m getting much better at distinguishing the oaks after initially deciding they were impossible. Many of them hybridize readily which means you might have trees that look like more than one species — frustrating! It doesn’t help that there are 45 species listed for the Southeast in Weakley’s flora, and though not all of them are likely to be found in my area, most of them are. So I’ve had to study my guides and then compare quite a bit.

Now I know that my neighborhood is full of willow oak (Quercus phellos), water oak (Q. nigra), post oak (Q. stellata), and white oak (Q. alba), but there may be just as much Spanish oak (Q. falcata) as any of those. There is also plenty of red oak (Q. rubra) and scarlet oak (Q. coccinea). I found a swamp chestnut oak leaf (Q. michauxii) along the road today, which was pretty exciting. It’s the first time I’ve found one around here. It was probably planted, as were these live oaks in a median along another part of my walk. And yesterday I found these:

Guess which oak …


Any guesses? I’ll let you think about it and tell you at the end of the post. Or maybe you know right off the bat? I had to look it up. Hint: Click the picture and check out the leaf edges in the big version. And the leaves are around six to eight inches long.

Aside from the botanizing lite going on, I’m not doing much of anything outside right now — we’ve had so much rain that everything is a muddy mess!

But the indoor garden. Love! My houseplants are all starting to bloom — now that the deciduous trees have decided to gradually shed. How convenient that they do that every year, letting in more and more light with every lost leaf.

Orange Holiday Cactus

Orange Holiday Cactus, Schlumbergera truncata

My pink twinkle orchid has a few blooms now, and smells so good that I sniff it several times a day! The twinkle oncidiums are tiny-flowered sweethearts with a chocolatey scent that is just divine. All the African violets are either blooming or full of buds. My favorites, Hiroshige and IsaBelle are still going strong. The holiday cactuses are blooming, too. Caribbean Dancer still has flowers and a no name light orange one is going nuts. I have a white one with no buds, and a magenta one in the same shape, but I still have hope that they’ll rise to the occasion soon.

Excitement of the morning was the new butterfly amaryllis bloom, which just opened up today! I bought the plant as a very small but leafy bulb at UNC Charlotte’s winter orchid sale one year, and kept it green for a couple of years before finally letting it go dormant late this summer. In October I repotted it and it wasted no time sending up some leaves and a big fat bud. My thumbs may be slowly turning from brown to green!

Cypripedium reginae model

Showy Lady’s Slipper model, photo via

A link I ran across this week that I thought you might like to see –

The U.S. Botanic Garden and the North American Orchid Conservation Center are working together to produce a series of punch-out models of native orchids. The thought is that they will be used for various educational activities, but anyone is free to use enjoy them. You can download the Showy Lady’s Slipper printable here: Orchid-gami

Cool, huh? It will be fun to see what else they come up with!

By the way, the mystery leaves are sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima). Sawtooth oak is from Asia, but according to Weakley, it was often planted here for wildlife. He finds this amusing given the great number of native oaks we have. It is a conundrum.





sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) graphic

Amorphophallus titanum

Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) in the greenhouse

Scientific name: Amorphophallus titanum

Common names: corpse flower, titan arum

Family: Araceae

Nativity: Sumatra, Indonesia

Location: McMillan Greenhouse, UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

Date: November 21, 2015

Notes: While it is usually the rare appearance of the titan arum inflorescence that gets attention—and it is a huge and particularly beautiful inflorescence—the leaf stalk which arises after the bloom is nearly as remarkable. The size would make you believe it is woody like a tree trunk, but that splotchy “trunk” is actually the petiole of a single, compound leaf.

In the picture above, the titan arum leaf is at the very center of the photo, and just to the right of it, another with fruiting spadix. Here they are a little closer up.

Titan Arum Fruits and Stalk

titan arum fruitsEventually, the impressive leaf will die back and the corm will rest for a while before sending up another leaf. Once every several years, after a period of dormancy, the dramatic inflorescence will form instead.

If the scientific name of the plant gives you a hint to the shape of the inflorescence, the common name clues you in to the scent – horrible! But it does attract the right pollinators by smelling like dead meat. Fortunately, the stench is limited to the short period of time the plant is fertile.

After pollination (typically by hand in cultivation), red-orange fruits form, each containing a seed or two. In their native habitat these seeds would be dispersed by rhinoceros hornbills, but in cultivation they will depend on humans to plant them. With some luck they will form a new corm which will eventually produce flowers.

The titan arum is poisonous to humans (is there any chance you would sample one?), but there is an interesting protein in them, one which is also found in human parasites. Hope is that studying its structure will yield information that might help fight African sleeping sickness and other illnesses caused by parasites. (Source:

Grevillea banksii

Grevillea banksii Closeup

Scientific name: Grevillea banksii

Common names: Red silky oak, dwarf silky oak, Banks’ grevillea, kahili flower

Family: Proteaceae

Nativity: Queensland, Australia

Location: San Francisco, California

Date: June 29, 2013

Notes: This beautiful plant was growing poolside in a garden I visited as part of the Garden Bloggers Fling in 2013. The Californians in the group had no trouble identifying it as grevillea for those of us pondering, because it is a common landscape shrub there in the land of cool temperatures but no frost. It is also widely cultivated in Australia, where it is native, and many cultivars and hybrids have been created, making it popular far and wide. As a result, grevillea has naturalized in Hawaii, and is a pesky invasive in Madagascar.

I noticed an interesting contradiction in the literature about Grevillea: They contain cyanide and shouldn’t be consumed, and they have sweet nectar which the aborigines of Australia would shake into a cup and drink! I wonder if they survived it? Some species must have less poison than others.

Grevillea banksii

10 Favorites for Fall Color … and Wildlife

Woodland Garden in Fall

Fall is one of the best reasons to have a woodland garden. Plants that normally play background to flowers and ornamentals—those that make up the canopy and understory layers—suddenly flush with color to take center stage. It’s time to look up for a while and see the beautiful leaves and the bright blue sky! When spent leaves eventually fall to the forest floor, they provide cover for caterpillars (which means more butterflies!) and decompose to produce compost for next year’s perennials. Yay for leaves and woody plants! But on to the list …

10 Excellent Trees and Shrubs for Fall Color and Wildlife:

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
I will try not to gush too much about spicebush, but it really is a great shrub, a shrub for all seasons. The fragrant leaves turn clear yellow in the fall, and on female plants, there’s the bonus of large red berries. The berries are edible and can be used as flavoring for ice cream and puddings, breads, etc. Even without the berries, adorable round beads along the stems add interest and contain the fragrant yellow flowers of spring. Spicebush swallowtails could show up in your garden, too, if you have this plant.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Beautyberry leaves fade through several shades of green to chartreuse and yellow, but brightly colored berries are the real reason to grow the plant. Magenta of rare intensity makes a nice foil for the pale leaves. Birds make good use of the berries during fall and winter, and bees and other nectaring insects appreciate the spring flowers.

Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.)
Fothergilla probably takes top spot on my list of favorite shrubs. The intense red-orange fall color is reason enough, but sweet-smelling bottlebrush flowers bloom with the azaleas (and attract butterflies and bees). Perky blue-green leaves fill in between the spring and fall shows.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.)
The witch hazels color up yellow to deep apricot. Depending on species, distinctively fragrant flowers open at a particularly welcome time—sometime between fall and late winter. Witch hazels are popular with squirrels in my garden; they seem to love the seeds. Witch hazels have a long history of herbal uses. Like my other favorite shrubs, they are far from one trick ponies!

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Itea is an adaptable shrub, preferring moist soils in some sun, but it will do very well in dry shade, too, perhaps suckering a little less in that situation. The olive green leaves turn intensely red to burgundy-purple in fall. In spring gracefully droopy spikes of white flowers appear, which butterflies and bees like to visit. Seeds persist into the winter, supporting wildlife when little else is available.

Sumac (Rhus spp.)
The sumacs are sometimes feared. “Aren’t they poisonous?” Or, “They sucker to beat the band!” Fortunately, there is only one poisonous one, and you are unlikely to encounter outside wetland environments. Sumacs will sucker if they like where you put them, so be sure you have the space, or try growing one in a container. Wildlife of many types (game birds, song birds, mammals, bees) frequent sumacs. The fruits are relished by birds, and though they are sour, they are edible for humans, too. Many sources mention that they can be used to make a lemonade-type drink. Fall color is unbeatable in shades of red and orange.

Maple (Acer spp.)
Maple’s brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red are the definition of fall to many. It’s hard to imagine talking about autumn without mentioning them. Red maples and sugar maples are common native trees in the eastern US, and there are various cultivars available. For small gardens, Japanese maples provide the same fabulous color (but less wildlife value).

Hickory (Carya spp.)
On the east coast where oak-hickory forests dominate, hickory trees may be tend to be taken for granted, and left to the deep woods. But hickories can be lovely shade trees in a large garden, spreading their branches as wide as tall. Many moths and butterflies rely on these trees, and squirrels and chipmunks relish the nuts. Unfortunately, they’re sometimes avoided because of the belief that nothing will grow under them. They do produce the toxin, juglone—as does their more notorious relative, walnut—but in smaller amounts. Some perennials are bothered by it, but the dry shade under a hickory may be worse for more of them than the traces of juglone in the soil. Take a look at this helpful PDF before you decide to plant under one. But do enjoy hickory’s pretty pinnate leaves as they turn a unique shade of intense gold in the fall.

Dogwood (Cornus florida)
The dogwood is most well known for its showy white bracts in spring, but red berries and fall leaves in shades of red to purple make it another more-than-one-reason-to-grow-it plant. Mine are particularly lovely this fall with some apricot tones mixed with the red. Dogwoods have had their difficulties with anthracnose, but they are still worth planting. Stressed trees are more likely to succumb, so see that your tree is sited well—they prefer the understory, not full sun—and watered during serious drought. And consider buying a resistant cultivar.

Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Fringe trees produce lots of fragrant white fringe as they bloom in the spring, and if you happen to have a female tree, you’ll later get blue fruits that blue jays, cardinals, and wild turkeys like. And, although I’ve never tried it, you can pickle the fruits or brine and eat them like olives (to which they are related). They fill the same part of the understory as dogwoods, but with an entirely different texture and fall leaf color. Fringe trees turn yellow.

Also worth considering:

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) for it’s fine-textured branches, blue berries, and fresh scent—and because not everything in fall has to be red or orange! Junipers are a favorite of warblers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and many other birds. They prefer full sun, but will grow in part shade.

In the same vein, the fall color of an oak tree (Quercus spp.) is less bold but no less valuable to the overall beauty of the landscape. Depending on the species, you could see tan or yellow or the deepest shades of red and chestnut. Hundreds of species depend on oak trees for food and shelter—for wildlife, they are unbeatable.

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is another tree that is superb for fall color. Some years the star-shaped leaves are neon shades of orange and red, some years the red is quite black with some yellow-green on the leaves less exposed to direct sun. If you have one of these next to your sidewalk, you’ll probably regret it—the spiny fruits are not fun to walk on. But as part of the canopy in a large woodland garden, it’s reliably eye-catching and thrilling each fall.

All of the above plants are currently growing in my garden at Oakleaf Woods. :)

Learn more:

Fall Color and Woodland Harvests, C. Ritchie Bell and Anne H. Lindsey, University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Gardening for the Birds | How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, George Adams, Timber Press, 2013.
Bringing Nature Home | How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, 2007.

Saintpaulia ‘Optimara Hiroshige’

African Violet Hiroshige

Scientific name: Saintpaulia ‘Optimara Hiroshige’

Common names: African violet

Family: Gesneriaceae

Nativity: Eastern tropical Africa

Location: Houseplant at Oakleaf Woods

Date: November 17, 2015

Notes: This African violet is one of my absolute favorites. Because Optimara does not tag their plants with cultivar name, I made a guess from their list of what was available when I bought mine. The African Violet Society cautions against trying to ID violets from pictures though, so we’ll have to consider ourselves warned! Whatever it is—it does look identical to their pictures of Hiroshige—I love it! The two-toned flowers and the petal shape are so delicate and beautiful. I’m only recently getting more serious about AV growing, so I don’t know how typical it is, but Hiroshige has bloomed about twice a year for me.

Hiroshige is named for the Japanese woodcut artist, Utagawa Hiroshige, and is part of Optimara’s Artist Palette series.

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