Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata)

Heartleaf Skullcap, Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata, is a perennial that some gardeners love to hate.

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I am not one of those gardeners and I am here to sing Hallelujah praises for Heartleaf Skullcap.  From its rich blue-grey foliage,

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to its gorgeous blue-violet blooms,

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to its ability to grow lushly in a garden as a drought tolerant and hardy perennial

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P1030148_cropped_2368x1599..new…Heartleaf Skullcap is an excellent choice for filling in newly established or troubled areas and as a stunning spring-blooming, evergreen ground-cover.

Continuing the series A Seasonal Look, I’m profiling Heartleaf Skullcap’s growth cycle  in Austin, Texas. This plant enjoys a wide native range, growing from “Maryland to Minnesota and southward to South Carolina, eastern and central Texas and Mexico” according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center’s page on Heartleaf Skullcap. I’ve grown this plant for about a decade.  I was gifted a clump with roots and I planted it in this spot, to the right of the bench

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and it did nothing for 4-5 years.  Then it decided to grow,

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and spread,

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and flower.

Heartleaf Skullcap propagates by its seeds and  through its fleshy rhizomes and spidery roots.

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Here in Austin, beginning mid-October (or so, depending on rainfall) the dormant-since-summer perennial re-appears.  It pops up in  established areas first,

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P1020723.newemerging in other spots throughout fall and winter. It’s a cool season plant throughout its native range, enjoying a well-earned siesta during the heat of summer.   Throughout our cool seasons, I pull it up where I don’t want it, as it multiplies into pathways or hugs too close to the root base of established perennials.

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It’s a plant that comes up easily–many’s a time that I’ve weeded Heartleaf with one hand while holding  a cup of coffee with the other.   Heartleaf Skullcap is winter hardy; even in our coldest cold snaps, the beautiful, fuzzy foliage proves a lush ground cover for those inevitable bare spots which develop as herbaceous perennials freeze to the ground.

I’ve heard gardeners call Heartleaf Skullcap “invasive” –I beg to differ. This perennial is an aggressive grower, but not invasive. The generally accepted definition of “invasive” is that of an organism which isn’t native and negatively affects a region. As a native to Central Texas, Heartleaf doesn’t fit that definition. I would agree that this plant can dominate other plants because it grows into their root zones. Gardeners should regularly cull this Skullcap when it insinuates itself near established or newly installed perennials and shrubs. That bullying trait is Heartleaf Skullcap’s primary flaw: it is weedy in a mixed perennial garden and gardeners must maintain control of it throughout its growing cycle.

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I am vigilant about removing it if it overshadows late-emerging perennials. For example, in this shot, the Heartleaf thrives under the shade of a Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora, along with two evergreen Giant Liriope, Liriope gigantea and a herbaceous Pigeonberry, Rivina humilis.

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I pulled out the Heartleaf Skullcap to give the Pigeonberry room to “breathe” and grow in preparation for its turn on center stage in late summer and fall–its primary bloom time.

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No worries about removing the Heartleaf Skullcap, the remaining roots and rhizomes guarantee reemergence sometime during fall or winter after the Pigeonberry is rendered dormant by our first frosts.

Similarly, I eliminated the Heartleaf from a spot where I planted two pass-along seedlings of Jewels of Opar, Talinum paniculatum, from my blogging friend, Texas Deb at austinagrodolce.

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The Jewels will grow and bloom, then die back with the first freeze. By then, the Heartleaf will materialize from its roots, in preparation of its bloom cycle.  It will flourish during the cool seasons, then decline in summer and once I decide it’s time, sometime next summer, I’ll pull up the Heartleaf Skullcap so that the Jewels can do their thing.  With that seasonal sharing and interplay between the growth cycles of two plants, there is usually something interesting happening in the garden.

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Timing is everything when pulling out spent Heartleaf Skullcap. In another spot, I paired it with three Texas Craglily, Echeandia texensis, which are dormant in winter and early spring and bloom in fall. As summer progressed and the Heartleaf’s blooms diminished, I didn’t pull it up, even though I realized the Texas Craglily clumps were hampered by Heartleaf’s overgrowth.

I was lazy.

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Heartleaf Skullcap has never smothered or killed any plants in my gardens, but in this case,  the Texas Craglilies were thwarted in development due to the exuberance of the Heartleaf.

I should have removed it sooner.  My bad.

Personally, I don’t find the maintenance onerous.  Mostly, that work occurs during our most pleasant time of the year (October-May), though I’m usually still weeding it out in June and it’s a touch toasty in Austin by that time. But let’s face it: weeding is a gardening thing–an expected chore.  If you’re looking for a completely maintenance-free plant, Heartleaf Skullcap is probably not for you and your garden.  If you don’t mind it taking over an area and there are no worries about what it will do to other plants, then Heartleaf could be a great addition for your gardens.  I’d caution against that because most gardeners want a variety of plants thriving throughout the seasons. You don’t want Heartleaf Skullcap to significantly delay smaller, winter-dormant and late season perennials because it’s loitering in the garden past its welcome.  For a successful perennial garden, preservation of the integrity of all plants is the goal. It’s mandatory to control an aggressive plant to ensure showtime for all.

A member of the mint family, Heartleaf Skullcap is aromatic.  Its foliage, while lambs-ear soft to touch and lovely to behold,

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feels oily to me and I don’t particularly care for that. Apparently, deer don’t care for it either, since it’s considered reliably deer resistant. That’s a bonus for many gardeners. Additionally, Heartleaf is considered a shade to part-shade plant, though mine are also in full sun–it’s versatile in its light requirements.

As Heartleaf Skullcap continues its growth during the spring months, it gets taller,

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and taller.

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By April, it’s ready to  bloom

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and it’s stunning!

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A favorite of bees, both native and honey,

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it pairs well with other blooming perennials. I especially love the combination of Heartleaf with Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus.

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Here it is with red Autumn Sage, Salvia greggii.

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Heartleaf Skullcap is a beautiful companion  plant.

Once summer arrives, Heartleaf is generally past its prime, but it remains handsome for a time,

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even though it’s mostly finished with blooming.  I think the spent bloom stalks are attractiveP1050428.new.P1050429.new

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…to a point.

As summer wears on, depending on rainfall amounts and extremity of  temperatures, Heartleaf Skullcap begins to appear peeky and a little messy.  That’s when I completely pull out this plant, both because it’s past the zenith of its beauty and also to allow other perennials their turn at bat.

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I don’t dump the yanked-out Heartleaf Skullcap in my compost.  I’m not consistent about turning my compost and as hardy as this plant is, I’d rather not have it biding its time, waiting to sneak its way into my gardens through the guise of soil-amending compost.  I’ve never thoroughly weeded out Heartleaf from my gardens–there are always plenty of rhizomes left  in the ground, ready for action in autumn once the temperatures cool and the light softens.

Typically by late July, there’s little Heartleaf Skullcap visible in my garden, though I tend to leave this group (under the Mt. Laurel) for quite a long time.

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If you’re willing to weed a bit to rein in this plant, Heartleaf Skullcap is a must-have perennial for your gardens.

So pretty and for so many months  of the year!

In fall,

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winter,

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spring,

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and summer,

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…Heartleaf Skullcap is an arresting and valuable plant: for pollinators because of its blooms and for gardeners because of its shade-tolerant, as well as drought and deer resistant qualities.

Plant it!

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Wildflower Wednesday, July 2014

Given the seemingly intractable problems our world faces, sometimes it’s hard for me to take garden blogging seriously.  But encouraging beauty and sustainability through practical gardening choices is one ingredient toward healing a troubled world–even if it’s only on the trifling scale of our own back yards.  Celebrating native plants and wildflowers, I’m joining with Gail at clay and limestone for July’s Wildflower Wednesday.  Native plants and wildflowers provide year-round pleasure and sustenance–for gardeners and wildlife.  There are so many reasons to use wildflowers in the home garden: they are beautiful, they require little irrigation and no chemicals and wildflowers evoke a sense of regional location.  Using wildflowers in the home garden is one way to honor the natural, local beauty inherent in all places and to affirm a positive future, wherever one lives and grows.

In my gardens, FrostweedVerbesina virginica, is just beginning its bloom period.  I captured the very first tiny florets recently.

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The flowers will expand in summer and early fall, then form into attractive seed heads. A mature Frostweed is multi-trunked,

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and tall. This deciduous plant fits nicely into a shade or part shade garden.

One of this year’s first GoldeneyeViguiera dentata, flowers was hiding behind some large leaves.

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Another primarily fall bloomer, this happy native will burst forth with masses of blooms in October, so Texas-bright that you’ll almost need sunglasses to look at them!    For now, the perennial sunflower is growing and producing a smattering of blooms.

The Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora, is common in Central Texas. The clusters of pink-to-coral blooms,

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are favored by hummingbirds, bees and people.   Red Yucca is quite dramatic when viewed in its full form.

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The tall, arching branches hold aloft those bloom clusters high above other perennials.

Closer to the ground, Pigeonberry, Rivina humilis,  is a low-growing ground-cover that is beautiful and cooling in shade.

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It produces many small, pink flower spikes which form luscious red berries which grateful birds enjoy.

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In my gardens, a variety of doves snack on these berries.

Another strong hummingbird attractor is the Flame Acanthus, Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii.  A deciduous shrub, the Fame Acanthus grows red-to-orange tubular flowers.

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These striking blossoms bloom profusely during the summer and fall months and without efforts from this gardener.

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That’s my kind of wildflower plant!

Here it is in full shrub mode, photo-bombed by a hardy Turk’s Cap!P1050985.new

There are many native Ruellia Texas.  The one I grow is called Drummond’s Wild Petunia or Ruellia drummondiana and is another wildflower at the start of its summer/fall bloom cycle.  A very tough plant which doesn’t require work from me, it displays small, purple blooms. Fresh blooms open each morning, then drop at the end of the day.

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A versatile perennial, it performs well in either shade or sun and isn’t large.  Ruellia dies to the ground in the winter, so  I like to plant it between evergreens, like this group which is sandwiched between native Columbine on its left and native Yarrow to its right.

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To me,  Turk’s CapMalvaviscus arboreus,  is the quintessential Texas wildflower.  Thriving in the hottest and toughest conditions, it blooms, blooms, blooms.

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It provides all sorts of good things for wildlife: cover, nectar, pollen and fruit.  What’s not to love about that plant for Texas birds, bees and butterflies?  And for two-legged Texans, Turk’s Cap form lovely perennial shrubs for their gardens that are easily maintained and make the statement: I’m from here!

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Beauty matters.

Wildflowers matter.

Grow what belongs where you are: for ease, for wildlife, and because wildflowers work in the garden–in all sorts of ways.

Grow wildflowers because they give joy.  And joy matters.

 

Foliage Follow-up, July Firecrackers!

There are several plants with the term “firecracker” in the name, but none lovelier than Firecracker Fern (Plant),  Russelia equisetiformis. 

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This beautiful  tropical shrub sports small, red, tubular shaped flowers at the terminal end of the branches–and I’m a sucker for red blooms!  The flowers give rise to one common name of the plant (to some, they look like little firecrackers). But  Firecracker Fern hosts other common names: Firecracker Plant, Firecracker Fern, Coral Plant, and Coral Fountain.

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But it’s the “Fern” part of the equation that attracts me.  Though I think the blooms are fetching, the “foliage” of this plant is what I find most appealing.

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This herbaceous (in Austin) perennial forms multiple bright green, arching branches.  Firecracker Fern is a rush-like plant, with wiry, slender foliage,

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though small ovate leaves form along the main branches of the plant.

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Firecracker Fern is  a tropical native to Mexico, but grows officially in USDA zones 9-12.  Here in Austin, Texas, zone 8b, it will die to the ground after a hard, sustained freeze.  The Firecracker Fern doesn’t grow as large here as it does in its native zones because of winter freezes. Most specimens I’ve seen, including my own, only grow to about 3 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide.  In the milder winters of the past 15 years, my Firecrackers often didn’t die back completely. This past winter all of mine died and I wondered if they would return.  Happily, all did and my garden is the better for it!

The specimen beside my pond gets morning to early afternoon sun,

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and the foliage is always striking–I think Firecracker Fern is a good companion plant for a pond garden.   It doesn’t require much water from me, so it also fits nicely with my xeric garden.  While not a strong attractor of wildlife, I’ve seen hummingbirds sipping at the little red flowers.    Firecracker Fern is reportedly deer resistant, though, like many plants, that can depend on drought and situation.

This group of three in my front garden,

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receive morning sun, then dappled shade for the remainder of the day.  They bloom,

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though not as profusely as the pond Firecracker Fern. I dug these three out from the mother plant beside the pond.  Firecracker Fern will form roots when the branches touch the ground around the immediate area where an original plant is located. Firecracker Fern transplants easily, though I’d recommend transplantation in spring because of its sensitivity to winter freezes. If transplanted in the fall, root development might not be significant enough for winter survival. When I gardened in the Green Garden at Zilker Botanical Garden, there were excess  Firecracker Ferns in the garden because several mother plants had rooted out.   I moved those extra plants to different spots throughout that garden, some in shade and some in sun. I think the Green Garden Firecrackers procreated well because that garden received regular irrigation.  It’s an easy plant to pop into a small space and  I always found a home for new specimens.

In my home garden, I like this combination of Firecracker Fern with Mexican Feather Grass, Nassella tenuisima, and Soft-leaf Yucca, Yucca recurvifolia. 

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And in another view, the slender foliage Firecracker Fern contrasts  beautifully with the wider leafed Pickerel Rush, Pontederia cordata.

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Though I’ve never grown it as such, Firecracker Fern is a beautiful container plant because of its arching qualities–well, also because of its foliage and blooms!  In a container, it would require more regular (several times per week) watering than it does when planted in the ground.  There are also cultivars of this perennial that bloom creamy white or a pale pink flowers.

Beautiful foliage,

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and stunning red flowers,

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Firecracker Fern is a great plant for many situations in the garden.

Thanks to Pam at Digging for hosting foliage fun for July.

Bloom Day, July 2014

The sun is blazing, everyday, all day.  It’s hot and it’ll be that way for a while. This gardener may be wilting, but her blooms are fresh and lovely.  Here is a quick view of a few heat-lovers in my garden this mid-summer in Austin, Texas.  Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for promoting this monthly bloom-palooza.

These daylilies that were  pass-alongs to me many years ago are reliable June-July bloomers.

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Double-blooms with a shorter scape than some other daylilies, I like them because they flower well in part shade.

My pond plants flower well year-round, but are in full bloom-mode during the hot months of summer.  The native Pickerel Rush, Pontederia cordata, grows quickly  and produces lovely spikes of blue.

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It’s a flower that dragonflies, butterflies and bees regularly visit.

The Colorado pond lily, Waterlily Nymphaea ‘Colorado’ is a gorgeous lily for the pond garden.

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As is another pond lily, the ‘Claude Ikins’ lily.  It blooms in tandem with the ‘Colorado’ during the long growing season.

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This particular specimen of Yellow Bells, Tecoma stans,  blossoms earlier in the growing season than any other of this species in my gardens.

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All of the Yellow Bells froze this past winter, so blossoms started a bit late this year.

A beautiful native tree, Retama, Parkinsonia aculeata, flowers throughout summer.

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Each bloom has four yellow petals, with one orange/red petal.  This is a very drought-tolerant small tree with few requirements from the gardener–except to enjoy.

Another great small native tree is the Desert Willow, Chilopsis linearis.  Related to the Retama, it has an open, airy form with lush, trumpet-shaped flowers.

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The Bride of Barbados or Dwarf Poinciana (which is what I grew up calling it), Caesalpinia pulcherrima, blooms magnificently in the hottest spots of any garden.

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I have two of these beauties, neither of which grows in full sun. Each one produces 2 or 3 stalks with attendant flower clusters,

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but the show is muted in comparison to Poinciana which grow in blasting sun.  Those Poinciana develop multiple branches with masses of blossoms–like this one.

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Wow!! That is an absolute showstopper!  My bit-part Poinciana are nothing compared to this diva. This one (and a partner Poinciana) star in the full-sun garden of some lovely neighbors who live down the street.

Sniff.

I have Poinciana envy.

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My Globe Mallow, Spaeralcea ambigua, sports blossoms this summer, which is unusual, but what a treat!

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Typically, this woody shrub blooms in spring and fall, taking a rest during the heat of the summer  months.  Flowers this July are likely due to our earlier summer rains.

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What’s blooming in your July garden? Share your bloom-palooza by visiting May Dreams Gardens for Bloggers’ Bloom Day!

 

Bee Mama Missive, July 2014, Honey!

My bees make incredible honey.  It’s just amazing stuff.

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Because our bees were overcrowded in their hives, we recently removed one bar with drawn comb from each box and those bars were full of capped honey.  The other frames had some brood or were empty, so we didn’t remove those.  Removing the bars with honey lessens the amount of stored honey for the bees during winter, but we have a long growing season here in Austin and there is still time for the bees to replenish their supply, assuming the hive survives. Bees are excellent little foragers and they’ll rapidly make up the loss of honey.

We were totally unprepared for the extraction of honey from our hives.   As we pulled out our chosen combs of honey, I bagged them in airtight plastic gallon bags and placed them into the freezer until I had time to remove the honey from the comb.

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I’m not sure there’s a need for expensive equipment to extract honey from a home bee hive.  It’s probably nice to have a professional extractor and if I’m ever serious about honey production, I’d consider investing in one.   But for this relatively small and unplanned job, we kept things low-tech.

I emptied comb with honey into an old metal colander placed in a bowl.

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Do you see how the colander is propped up?  Yeah, that’s right–with tea boxes strategically placed on the edges of the bowl, flanked by jars buttressing each side.  Didn’t I say it was a low-tech operation?

I crushed the comb with a heavy, large spoon and let the honey drip slowly into the bowl.  Bees make beautiful comb.  Perfect hexagons, with firm but malleable texture, honeycomb is a truly remarkable product.  I hated to crush the comb, but it there’s no way around squishing it up to get to the honey.

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I didn’t toss out the crushed comb, but stored in the freezer. Sometime in the future,  I’ll melt it down when (if?) I add other boxes to our hives.  We use top bars for the bees to comb-build on and if there is a strip of wax on the bar, like this,

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the bees use it as a guide for their comb-building.

Once most of the honey was out of the comb and into the bowl, Bee Daddy poured the honey into a jar through a tea strainer.  The tea strainer caught  any extraneous materials (primarily wax) left in the honey from the first round with the colander.

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It’s a messy job.   Sticky honey dripped onto the counters, floors, table–everywhere!  I never quite realized how water-soluble honey is though–it cleans up immediately.  So, while messy, this neat freak (yeah, I am, sorta) didn’t fret too much over the mess.

I washed each jar as we finished.

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We bottled almost 7 cups of honey!  Wow!  Sweet, locally produced honey.  Our bees fly within a 3 mile radius of our home, so it doesn’t get more local than that.  We’ve shared  honey and will keep some for future use.  Several people who’ve tasted our bees’ honey think it tastes like peaches.  Interesting.  There are peach trees around, but peach pollen/nectar wouldn’t  comprise but a very small percentage of the honey.  Our bees produce honey that tastes better than any store bought honey that I’ve ever tried–that stuff is just not in the same category at all.

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With the deaths of our queens, our bees are struggling a bit.  I appreciate their hard work and am awed by their amazing abilities.  I hope this isn’t our last honey harvest, though I imagine we won’t get honey again for quite a long time.

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Thanks bees!  You’re the best!