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.


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


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.


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,


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


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.



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


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.


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


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.



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.


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



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!


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.





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.


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


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



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,



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,


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


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. 


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



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,


and stunning red flowers,


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.


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.



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.



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


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


I have Poinciana envy.


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


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.


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.


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.




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.



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.


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,


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.



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.


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.


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.


Thanks bees!  You’re the best!


Bee Mama Missive, July 2014, Oops

Adventures with bees!


Or, crisis in Bee-ville.

As of this writing, I’m not sure which of those I’m experiencing.  What I’m understanding about beekeeping is that there’s much to learn.  And like gardening, one learns more from mistakes than from successes.

I’m also beginning to trust my instincts.

When we open the hives, there’s so much to keep track of.  We look for eggs, brood, number of drone cells, queen, capped and uncapped honey.  We’re doing all of this as quickly and efficiently as possible, while recording our observations.  We smoke the bees continually to keep them calm–the little buggers sting!  There are an array of tools (brush, hive tools, saw) to keep track of, all while perspiring profusely in a hot, hot, hot bee suit.

Sometimes,  this beekeeper’s head wants to explode!

In early June, we performed a routine check of our hives. We were leaving town for two weeks and regular hive checks are mandatory in beekeeping.



As we removed bars with comb, we noticed that instead of the comb having a full,  normal shape,


several of the combs in both hives were indented at the bottom,


or skewed  to the side.


We realized that the bees had built cross comb in both hives.  Cross comb is comb built perpendicular to the main direction of comb in the hive.


Turns out, bees have a thing about gravity and if the hive is tilted back ever so slightly and is not level, bees are more likely to build cross comb.  Sure enough, our hives weren’t quite level.  So I placed a bit more mulch underneath the feet of the hives to level the hives,


and that problem was resolved.

Because it’s best (for the beekeeper, anyway) to encourage the bees to build comb in an organized manner, we were told to cut out the cross comb–which we did.



As good beekeepers, we followed beekeeping protocol.  Honestly though, given our problems now, I regret that decision.

I felt badly about removing the cross comb.  There were lots of capped and uncapped white larvae in that comb which we removed and therefore destroyed.




P1040977.newCapped and uncapped larvae denote developmental stages.  The eggs are laid in the cells of comb, larvae develop and grow, then at a certain point the cell is capped. The bees develop on a specific timetable into either workers, drones, or queens and eventually the adult bee emerges from the cell.

For the next few days after the hive check and before I left for my trip, I noticed that the bees were different–more aggressive and not the same sweet little girls I was accustomed to.  I was stung multiple times and they were not keen on tolerating me anywhere near the hives, which was unusual.  Bees are driven by pheromones. Their development, job in the hive and hive identification are all  pheromone-based and the queen is the epicenter of that pheromone universe.  I’ve learned that when a queen dies and the pheromone levels are dropping, the hive can become cantankerous.

Menopausal bees, if you will.

I understand that.

Fast-forward three weeks later and another hive check. Before I continue, I should explain that we’ve named our hives: Scar (for obvious reasons), on the right and Mufasa, on the left.


That will make telling the story slightly easier.

And confirm to you that I’m completely wackadoo.

We opened both hives and noticed several oddities.  There was no brood in Scar and only a little capped brood in Mufasa. No fresh eggs or larvae in either hive.

There was lots of plain comb,


comb loaded with honey,


and comb with budding queen cells.


That’s concerning because it means the bees are attempting to create their own queen.  That’s not necessarily bad, but given the other evidence of no queen activity, that could spell doom for the hives.  By now I was convinced that we had no queen, definitely in Scar, possibly in Mufasa.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I sent queries to an Austin Beekeeping Association and to BeeWeaver about what we observed in the hives and the possible injury to or death of our queen(s). Additionally, our hives were a bit overcrowded with nine frames, rather than the normal eight, so moving drawn comb in and out of tight quarters increased the likelihood of injuring bees, including the queens.  Bees are killed every time we hive check and it is possible that we killed the queen(s), either by removing a bar with comb, or setting it back in the hive or when we cut out the cross comb.

All advice to us was to wait a week or so and check again.   A week later,  I checked  and still there was no new brood.  I sent photos to BeeWeaver and they agreed that it was time to get a new queen for Scar–which fortunately I was able to do immediately since BeeWeaver’s home office is about 10 minutes from where I live.   I brought home Scar’s new queen (marked with a green dot) and her attendants,


and re-queened Scar on July 1.

I’ve checked both hives since and Scar’s queen is out of her queen cage and I think there’s some new brood, though I’ll know for certain next week.  But there’s no brood at all in Mufasa and for bureaucratic reasons, I can’t get a queen for Mufasa until next week.  Last week, my gut told me to get a new queen for both hives, but I deferred to those with more experience and only re-queened one hive.

I now regret that decision.

I knew something was amiss after the early June hive check and I felt that both of my hives needed new queens last week, even though others recommended re-queening only one of the hives.  I don’t generally operate on woo-woo, emotional factors.  I’m an adherent to science, fact and reason.  But I dearly wish I’d followed my instincts with this glitch in my beekeeping.

Time will tell whether my hives survive.

The mistakes we’ve made are the mistakes of novice beekeepers:  building hives that are out of the ordinary, overcrowding the boxes with the placement of one-too-many bars in each, (perhaps) removing the drawn comb too quickly when checking the hives, not acting immediately when we suspected that there was something wrong with our queens.

The biggest mistake though, was not trusting ourselves.

The one positive from this experience, hard lessons aside, is that we extracted honey!  I hadn’t planned to retrieve honey from my hives this year, but we decided to remove one bar from each box to alleviate crowding and the bars we removed were those full of honey!

More about that next time.