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Stewartia malacodendron

The ornamental value of Stewartia malacodendron has been described by authors of gardening and botanical literature for at least 200 years. William Bartram in his Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791) mentioned the plant several times. Near Savannah, Georgia, he wrote of “this ancient sublime forest,” which besides Stewartia malacodendron, included Cornus florida, Halesia, Aesculus pavia, Sambucus, and Callicarpa, among others.

Even then the forest was giving way to development, but conservation was not yet a concern. Bartram wrote that the forest was “frequently intersected with extensive avenues, vistas and green lawns, opening to extensive savannas and far distant Rice plantations,” and that it “agreeably employs the imagination, and captivates the senses by scenes of magnificence and grandeur.” [1]

One hundred and seventy three years after Bartram, Elizabeth Lawrence wrote of a special trip to see Stewartia malacodendron at the North Carolina coast. Her host Miss Kate took them, after many miles of driving, to some woods that looked “impenetrable,” but then “parted some sweetgum branches and walked into the underbrush as easily as if she had opened a door and entered a country parlor.” Ms. Lawrence had less grace than her host in that situation, and stumbled, grumbled, and lost a few hairpins along the way.

The indignities must have been worthwhile, because Ms. Lawrence recalled the visit ten years after the experience: Eventually, “she [Miss Kate] stopped on the edge of a deep ravine. At the bottom of it a sluggish stream, fed by an old spring, ran through a carpet of fern, and the slope between was covered with a thicket of stewartias. Standing there above them we looked down on the flowers, and that is the way they should be seen—from above, with light coming through many leaves before it reaches the ivory cups that seem to hold the sweet mystery of the woods.”

In June of 1964 Ms. Lawrence wondered whether “the place has been cut up into building lots, or whether a superhighway runs through the ravine.” She fondly remembered how she had, “looked down on those white flowers growing gently among the green leaves.” [2]

More recently Gil Nelson and Larry Mellichamp have favorably reviewed Stewartia malacodendron in their books.

Dr. Nelson: “The flowers are about three inches wide when fully expanded, making them appear inordinately large against the 2–4-inch leaves. The blossoms are composed of five crinkled petals that start out pure white but change to creamy or yellowish white by maturity. A mass of deep purplish or burgundy-red stamens decorates the center of the blossom, lending a regal air to the flower.” [3]

Dr. Mellichamp: “Silky camellia is one of the most wonderful year-round trees I have grown. It’s also one of the most difficult. […] In bloom, it’s breathtaking, with dozens of gorgeous white flowers well displayed on the sweeping leafy branches.” He suggests growing the plant in moist, well drained soil, and never letting it dry out until well established. [4]

The rewards must be worth any extra attention Stewartia malacodendron requires as it’s getting settled into your garden. Mike Dirr is reported to have said about the silky camellia, “It’s every gardeners dream plant, like the finest piece of art or sculpture.” [5]

Scientific name: Stewartia malacodendron

Common names: Silky camellia, Virginia stewartia

Family: Theaceae

Habitat: Southeastern US from Virginia to Texas, especially in wooded areas of the Coastal Plain

[1] William Bartram, Travels and Other Writings, Literary Classics of the United States, 1996, p. 256.

[2] Elizabeth Lawrence, edited by Bill Neal, Through the Garden Gate, The University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 113-114.

[3] Gil Nelson, Best Native Plants for Southern Gardens, University Press of Florida, 2010, pp. 94-95.

[4] Larry Mellichamp, photographs by Will Stuart, Native Plants of the Southeast, Timber Press, 2014, p. 340.

[5] Mike Dirr, via Niche Gardens,, accessed May 11, 2017.

Senna obtusifolia


This pretty volunteer showed up in my garden one day. I noticed sulphur butterflies seemed to like it too, and it turns out that it is a host plant for them. What I didn’t want to know is that it is considered by some to be one of the world’s worst weeds. In America, in particular, it is controlled with herbicides because it competes for resources with agricultural crops, and it carries Asian soybean rust disease as well. [1]

In Asia and Africa it is more highly regarded and is often used as food or medicine. In the Sudan, leaves are fermented and then dried and eaten as a source of protein. [2]

In India the leaves and seeds are considered laxative, anthelmintic, ophthalmic, cardiotonic and expectorant. The leaves and seeds are used for ringworm, flatulence, colic, dyspepsia, constipation, cough, bronchitis, and cardiac disorders, among other things. [3]

One study [4] determined that extracts of S. obtusifolia demonstrated a broad-spectrum of activity against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and fungi, which the authors concluded may confirm its use in traditional medicine.

Caterpillars have nearly denuded the plant in my garden at least a couple of times, but there are several long seed pods still attached. They look a lot like haricot verts. I’ll save them and figure out what to do with them later. They’ve been roasted and used as a coffee substitute in some places [2]…maybe that.


Scientific name: Senna obtusifolia, syn. Cassia obtusifolia

Common names: Sicklepod, arsenic weed, Java-bean, Jue-ming-zi

Family: Fabaceae

Nativity: Probably tropical America, but it has naturalized around the world

[1] Larry Steckel, “Sicklepod,”, accessed November 7, 2016.
[2] Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi, Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West, Healing Arts Press, 1992, pp. 311–317.
[3] Pankaj Oudhia, “Charota or Chakad,”, accessed November 6, 2016.
[4] Doughari, El-mahmood, A. M. and Tyoyina, I.”Antimicrobial activity of leaf extracts of Senna obtusifolia (L),”, accessed November 6, 2016.

Buddleja davidii

Buddleja davidii

Scientific name: Buddleja davidii, often spelled Buddleia

Common names: Butterfly bush, orange-eye butterfly bush, summer lilac, mimenghua, mi meng hua

Family: Buddlejaceae

Nativity: China and Japan

Location: Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve, Leland, NC

Date: October 24, 2016

Notes: The beautifully ornamental butterfly bush is widely planted in the southeastern United States, and all around the world. It is beloved as a nectar plant for butterflies, but is not a host plant for Southeast native insects. It has naturalized in Britain and is considered invasive in New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest.

Since local butterflies don’t lay their eggs on it, and it has potential for taking over in areas where those host plants are needed, how about a native plant instead? Consider the butterfly magnet, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), or fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.), or a North American salvia (Salvia coccinea, and others). All look beautiful and provide for local wildlife at the same time — and they add variety and some diversity to your landscape! Who needs a million butterfly bushes if you can plant some other nice things?

If you already have a butterfly bush or find a naturalized one, feel free to use it all up! They make good dye plants, producing shades of green, golden-orange and brown. [1] In China, Buddleja officialis, and perhaps this species as well [2], is used for pink-eye with swelling, watering of the eyes, and for sharpening vision. [3] Anecdotally, B. davidii flowers make a delicious medicinal syrup with sedative properties. [4]


[1], accessed November 4, 2016.
[2], accessed November 4, 2016.
[3] Chinese Herbal Cures, Henry C. Lu, Sterling Publishing, 1994.
[4], see comment by Sally M., accessed November 4, 2016.

Amsonia ciliata

Flowers begin opening while the plant’s unfurling branches are lax, a curious but beautiful effect.
Gil Nelson, Wildflowers of the Sandhills Region, 2011

Amsonia ciliata

I‘ve heard more often about Amsonia hubrichtii because of its use in gardens, but A. ciliata is a good garden candidate as well. The fringed bluestar has the same things going for it that A. hubrichtii does — light blue flowers in spring, outstanding fall color — but the hairs (cilia) that characterize this species catch the autumn sun in a particularly beautiful way and make it appear to glow. [1]

In the garden, fringed bluestar is tolerant of dry soils and is resistant to deer and insect pests due to its milky sap. It likes a little sun; plant in an open woodland or in a sunnier spot at wood’s edge. A selection, ‘Spring Sky’, from the Philadelphia garden of botanist Mary Henry (1884–1967), is sometimes available in nurseries, or it can be grown from cuttings or seed.

Nineteenth century botanical doctor, botanist, and ethnobotanist, Gideon Lincecum, wrote in his notes, “I have not known this plant used for any thing or by any nation of people. But it possesses the characteristic marks for a good medicine.” He believed the root of the plant to be stimulant, sudorific, and emetic, and thought one day it could come into use. [2]


Scientific name: Amsonia ciliata

Common names: Fringed bluestar, sandhills bluestar, slimpod, blue dogbane

Family: Apocynaceae

Native Range: Southeastern US

  1., accessed 11/01/16.
  2., accessed 11/01/16.

Ageratina aromatica

Ageratina aromatica (Lesser Snakeroot)

Scientific name: Ageratina aromatica, syn. Eupatorium aromaticum

Common names: Small-leaved White Snakeroot, Wild-hoarhound, Lesser Snakeroot, Aromatic Eupatorium

Family: Asteraceae

Nativity: Eastern North America

Location: Sandhills Gamelands, Hoffman, NC

Date: October 23, 2016

Notes: Along with thousands of others in the 1800s, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died of “milk sickness” when she drank the milk from a cow that had eaten a close relative of this plant, white snakeroot (A. altissima). A. aromatica may or may not be less toxic than its famous relative, but it looks similar enough to avoid consuming it lest you make a mistake in identification.

The chemical involved is tremetol; you can be poisoned by having a large amount of it at once, or small amounts over a long period. Cows that have eaten the plants will begin to tremble, especially after any exertion, then die within a few days.

Having warned you, CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants by Umberto Quattrocchi (pg.  122) lists several historic uses for A. aromatica, among them crushing the leaves to apply to bruises and sprains.

Ilex vomitoria

yaupon holly

Scientific name: Ilex vomitoria

Common names: Yaupon, yaupon holly

Family: Aquifoliaceae

Nativity: Southeastern United States, and — fascinating these disjunct situations — a small area of Mexico, south of the Yucatan.

Location: Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina

Date: March 8, 2016 (top photo), October 2015 (bottom two)

Notes: Yaupon is a popular landscape plant in the Southeast. It adapts to all sorts of growing conditions, takes well to pruning, and female plants have attractive red berries for most of the year. There are cultivars that suit many different design scenarios.

An interesting and not particularly well known tidbit about this plant is that it has caffeine. The vomitoria part of its scientific name might make you think twice about consuming it, but historically yaupon has been used as a daily beverage the same way we use black tea or coffee today. It seems to be the dosage that makes the difference — you’ll throw up if you make the tea too strong, or drink too much of it. Or maybe as some say, the association with vomiting has nothing to do with this plant at all, but with others that were blended with it when it was used ceremonially.

Because it is easy to grow and native to the United States, there has been some interest in bringing back the habit of its consumption. One company in Texas was recently featured on NPR. Don’t be surprised to see yaupon tea in a restaurant near you soon!

You can listen to the program here: Here’s the Buzz on America’s Forgotten Native ‘Tea’ Plant

Weeping cultivars have the most caffeine of all the I. vomitoria cultivars, according to Green Deane. His posts about various Ilex brews have a lot more detail if you’re interested in making the tea yourself.

weeping yaupon

Yaupon holly berries become more translucent as they freeze and thaw a few times over the winter. Some types of wildlife prefer to have them prepared by Nature this way. (The berries are toxic to humans.) Yaupon holly is a host plant for the brown and black butterfly, Henry’s Elfin (Callophrys henrici). This butterfly’s big eyes, and antennae that look like dotted lines of black and white, make it a very cute little visitor.

yaupon holly berries

Bartramia pomiformis

pocket of bartramia moss
Common names: Apple-moss

Family: Bartramiaceae

Nativity: Undetermined, but it grows throughout the northern hemisphere

Location: Waxhaw, North Carolina

Date: March 15, 2016

Notes: As my friend Lisa and I were stalking the trout lilies along the Mineral Springs Greenway, we came across apple-moss. It was growing all mixed in with the trout lilies in several spots along the creek. Apple-moss gets it’s common name from the shape of the spore capsules, which look like little green apples. The genus name honors John Bartram (1699–1777), who is sometimes called the father of American botany, and whose son William traveled and famously wrote about the flora and fauna of the Carolinas.

bartramia pomiformis calyptra

bartramia moss and troutlily leaves

Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve

Weymouth Woods Nature Preserve in Southern Pines, North Carolina, is just the place to spend some time reflecting and pondering the mysteries of nature…or to add up some Fitbit steps in the middle of a long car ride! Either way, it is a beautiful place to hike. On a recent visit I snapped a few photos as I wandered the sandy paths amidst ancient pine trees and cheerful birdsong.

Boiling Spring Lakes Preserve

Brunswick County has the highest plant species density of any county in North Carolina, and the town of Boiling Spring Lakes is one of the most notable spots in the county. A 6000+ acre nature preserve was established in 2004 to protect hundreds of species, some of which are rare or endangered, that live in that small, varied parcel of the Carolina coastal plain. It was designated a nationally significant ecological site in 1995 by the NC Natural Heritage Program.

The Nature Conservancy manages the property and the nature trail, which fortunately for us,  makes some of the property accessible to the public. The trail begins at the Community Center on Leeds Road, running along the edge of a disc golf course before entering the woods and bogs of the preserve.

March is a little early for blooms but there were still some interesting ones when I visited last week. I’ve numbered my photos to match the gallery slider above, or you can click the number links below and see a large view of each one.

(1, 2, 3) As you begin the trail, the first boggy spot appears to your left.

(4, 5, 6, 7) Common pixie-moss (Pyxidanthera barbulata var. barbulata) is visible along the sides of the trail and in some cases, in the trail.

(8, 9, 10, 11) Sand-myrtle (Kalmia buxifolia) has a surprising flower if you think of kalmia as the mountain laurel one. The petals of sand-myrtle are separate and the stamens are free.

(12) Waterproof boots are a good idea. Sometimes you can just walk around the wet and sometimes you can’t.

(13, 14) Pine savanna

(15, 16) A dark water pond

(17, 18) Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata)

(19) Dwarf sundew (Drosera brevifolia)

(20) Butterwort (Pinguicula sp.) ?

(21) Very big puddle

(22, 23, 24) Mystery shrub (Vaccinium) ?

(25) Dry sand and turkey oaks at the back edge of the disc golf course

(26) Longleaf pine juvenile (Pinus palustris)

(27) Looking up through the turkey oaks to the longleaf pines

(28) Yellow wood-sorrel (Oxalis sp.)

(29) Turkey oak leaves (Quercus laevis)

(30) Moss and lichens

(31) Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

(32) Pine needle-y forest floor

(33)  A weather-bleached longleaf pine cone

(34) Sandy path at the outer edge of the pine savanna

Winter at the Waccamaw River

Waccamaw River Roadside January (3)

January in the coastal plain has a subtle and irresistible beauty. I stopped at the Waccamaw River one day to get a couple of shots of the river, but of course the dried roadside plants got my attention, too.

Waccamaw River January Gone to Seed

This plant’s pods have long since splayed open to release the seeds.

Waccamaw River Goldenrod January

Fluffy down will float these goldenrod seeds far from home, if the birds don’t eat them first.

Waccamaw River Roadside January

The Waccamaw River is a blackwater river, which means the water is rich with tannins from fallen leaves that turn the color deep and dark. You can see the effects in this cattail lined ditch just a few yards from the river.

Waccamaw River Roadside January

The river’s source is Lake Waccamaw; it is the only river in North Carolina to start in a Carolina Bay, but all blackwater rivers begin (and end) in the coastal plain.

Waccamaw River January

Along the banks is a typical Carolina floodplain forest with oaks, tupelo, bald cypress, sycamore, sweetgum, red maple and some emergent pines.

Waccamaw River January

The effect of bleached tree trunks and black water is appealing. Birds call, and the water makes occasional plink and sploosh sounds. It’s soothing. Winter can be quite pleasant here.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

Witch Hazel Jelena Blooms

Jelena is a vase-shaped, winter-blooming shrub that grows slowly to a height of around 12 feet. The red-orange flowers are often said to be non-fragrant, but I’ve occasionally caught a mild whiff of perfume. None of the x intermedia hybrids are as fragrant as the native species, but they do have good ornamental value. The odd ribbony flowers stand out in the stark landscape of early to mid-winter, and the fall color is outstanding. One characteristic I don’t particularly care for is that many of the dead leaves are retained until well after the blooms start opening. My shrubs are still fairly small, so I usually just pull them off, allowing the flowers to shine.

Scientific name: Hamamelisintermedia ‘Jelena’, syn. ‘Copper Beauty’

Common names: Jelena witch hazel

Family: Hamamelidaceae

Native Range: Hybrid found at Arboretum Kalmthout in Belgium by Robert DeBelder (whose wife was named Jelena). Parents are the Chinese species, H. mollis, and the Japan

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

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