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Mulberry names go round and round

2012 June 7
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By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Citizen reader Mary Ayers recently suggested that I might enjoy seeing a beautiful red-fruited mulberry tree out on Union Grove Road at the edge of a farm field. She wondered if it could be one of the kind imported for silk production years ago.

Well now, thank you, Mary Ayers, for setting me off on quite an adventure – mostly trying to determine what kind of mulberry you have out there in your beautiful countryside.

With fellow nature adventurers Brian and Tony, I went to visit that mulberry last week.

Numerous red and black mulberries were still hanging on a particularly large specimen tree. Smaller trees are easy to view in town hanging over the Frances Shetley bikeway behind Carrboro Elementary School, and it’s not unusual to find walkers competing with the birds for the tasty, low-hanging fruit.

The Union Groove Road mulberry is one mighty big tree. Photo by Brian Stokes

Beneath the Union Grove Road tree I referred to Trees of the Carolinas (Stan Tekiela) and confidently announced to Brian and Tony that we were looking at the native red mulberry, Morus rubra. The description of shiny smooth leaves and black fruit definitely fit our tree. A second reference, Native Trees of the Southeast (Kirkman, Brown and Leopold), also described the white mulberry, Morus alba, which was long ago imported to feed silkworms.

The exotic species is easily distinguished from the native because white mulberry has mature fruit, pink to white. But the description of shiny smooth leaves of white mulberry and rough-to-touch (scabrous) leaves of red mulberry began to confuse me.

Back home I pulled out the current authority, Alan Weakley’s Flora of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, for confirmation that black-fruited red mulberry has scabrous leaves and white mulberry sports the shiny, smooth leaves but has fruit that may be white, pink, red, purple and black. Now more confused, I studied all my other references; I found no consistency.

I was relieved to discover the response of my medicinal and edible plants guru, Dr. James Duke, to finding similar inconsistencies: “Authors who seem sure they know the differences between the species have not convinced me.”

I’m curious about what mulberries we do have growing all about us. Among horticultural varieties of white mulberry, Morus alba, var. multicaulis, is described as the silkworm mulberry. Mulberry species and varieties freely hybridize and bird-dispersed seeds produce even more varieties of mulberry. So, while botanists continue to sort all this out, I’m content that the tree out there on Union Grove Road is, indeed, one mighty big mulberry!

Hanging high above the ground, ripe mulberries are more accessible to birds than to humans. Photo by Brian Stokes

When I mentioned mulberry to Tom Marriott, another Citizen reader, he responded: “You’re going to mention Silk Hope, aren’t you?”

Obviously I can go round and round about naming mulberries, but I don’t know the story of Silk Hope. Though planting white mulberries and keeping silkworms content to produce silk must have been too labor intensive to compete with tobacco growing, I can imagine there’s a good story there.

I suspect that a few Citizen readers know the Silk Hope story and hopefully will share it with us.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

Discover a new trail on National Trails Day

2012 May 31
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By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

This Saturday is the American Hiking Society’s 20th National Trails Day. This annual celebration on the first Saturday in June evolved from the 1987 report of the President’s Commission on American Outdoors.

Some of the trails at Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trails offer engaging views of the Eno River. Photo by Ken Moore

That concept became known as Trails for All Americans and eventually resulted in public and private groups joining with the American Hiking Society to launch National Trails Day in 1993. In addition to encouraging folks to get outdoors for obvious benefits, this day promotes the recognition of the countless hours of planning, labor and negotiating required for the more than 200,000 miles of public trails across America today.

Check out for specific activities planned locally in Cary, Raleigh and Durham by dedicated groups including Friends of Hemlock Bluffs, Friends of the Mountain to Sea Trail, Triangle Greenways Council, East Coast Greenway Alliance and the Blue Jay Point County Park.

Some of you spend an hour or two each week walking along a favorite trail. I wonder how many of you choose a different trail each week.

Take a look online at Flora, ”Seven local natural wonders” (2/18/10), for a review of local trail systems. There are so many great hikes close by that one may walk a different trail every week, for weeks and weeks, and not repeat a walk.

Beautiful little spotted wintergreen is a pleasant surprise in woodlands everywhere these days. Photo by Brian Stokes

This past weekend I checked out a trail new to me. I’ve been meaning to explore the Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail ever since it opened in 2003. The site of the Occoneechee/Orange Speedway, active from 1948-68, is a real cultural and natural-history treasure. We are indebted to Preservation North Carolina and many caring, energetic individuals who worked so hard to keep the site from commercial development.

Attractive new signage throughout Hillsborough makes it easy to locate the trail on Elizabeth Brady Road. Trail maps and interpretive signage enhance the visit there. The easy walk around the old one-mile track, now enclosed by a 40-year-old Piedmont forest, provides an unusual opportunity to sit in the old concrete racetrack viewing stands and appreciate nature’s rapid recovery while trying to imagine the day back when Richard Petty was the winner in the Speedway’s final year, 1968.

Trails beyond the old track offer engaging views of the Eno River as well as walks through a diversity of habitats, including the mature beech walk, where I was pleased to spot a vigorous population of the rather rare Lewis’s heartleaf, Hexastylis lewissii. Another wildflower treat, flowering in forests everywhere these days, was the spotted wintergreen, Chimaphila maculata, with pure white flowers beckoning one to take that “closer look” on hands and knees.

The trails around Historic Occoneechee Speedway offer lots of walking and viewing opportunities. Photo by Ken Moore

To acknowledge Trails Day this coming weekend, I’m going across the river from the speedway to check out the Poet’s Walk at Ayr Mount. Be nice to yourself this weekend; gather some friends and check out a trail new to you.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

Little blue flowers steal the show

2012 May 24
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By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Once again I offer apology to Jock Lauterer for delaying my response to his request to identify that 1943 yellow pressed-flower specimen of his Great Aunt Myra Baldwin (The Carrboro Citizen, “A Thousand Words,” 5/3/12).

Skullcaps are almost hidden among other field plants. Photo by Ken Moore

Two blue-flowered beauties have taken center stage during my recent walkabouts.

Out at Mason Farm, enjoying butterflies and other pollinators visiting the hundreds and hundreds of penstemons, I was not prepared for “closer looks” to so completely divert my attention away from the sea of white flowers.

Perhaps most noticeable, as bright-yellow flowers can be, were the numerous sundrops, Oenothera fruiticosa, scattered throughout. Sundrops immediately came to mind when seeing Jock’s Great Aunt Myra’s pressed yellow flower, but that’s another story down the road.

Walking counterclockwise around the Big Oak Woods in the center of Mason Farm, you will encounter one here first, and another one there, along the ditch edge of the second open field to the right, a most beautiful blue wildflower.

On closer inspection, skullcap flowers become truly engaging. Photo by Ken Moore

Looking out into the open field you begin noticing quite a lot of these blue flowers, almost hidden in the taller grasses and sedges. There are many more this year, a sign that N.C. Botanical Garden staff are succeeding in managing those fields with fire and mowing to retrieve the floral diversity of former Piedmont prairies.

Scutellaria integrifolia, skullcap, was so named because early observers saw a resemblance in the flowers as well as the seed capsules to the dramatic helmets worn by ancient Roman soldiers. Though in the mint family (Lamiaceae), with square stems and opposite leaves, this little beauty is not fragrant.

Skullcaps are common along ditches and in wet fields and damp forests everywhere. You simply need to cast your eye occasionally on the ground during your walks to observe how special they are. In addition to their visual appeal, the medicinal properties recognized by the Native Americans are still valued.

A "closer look" reveals spiked lobelia's subtle beauty. Photo by Ken Moore

Another engaging plant, if you spy it, is the spiked lobelia, Lobelia spicata. This one really surprised me, and I’ve gone back several times to visit the group I almost stepped on along a path in the shady forest.

These delicately flowered plants, related to the brilliant, later-summer red cardinal flowers, Lobelia cardinalis, are frequently found established on green mossy hummocks along forest pathways. You will definitely have to get down on your knees to take in the beauty of spiked lobelias. It’s hard to imagine this plant is in the bellflower family (Campanulaceae).

Like the skullcaps, lobelias also have useful medicinal qualities, and you may notice lobelia while walking the herbal aisles of our local markets.

Though 1-2 feet tall, spiked lobelias go almost unseen along forest pathways. Photo by Ken Moore

While we continue to be blessed with cool, sunny days, take a closer look wherever you walk to find these two blue beauties.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Our spectacular Piedmont

2012 May 17
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Penstemons by the thousands are now in peak flower at Mason Farm. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
This week I was planning a Flora story inspired by the pressed-flower specimen in Jock Lauterer’s Great Aunt Myra Baldwin’s 1943 diary described in a recent “A Thousand Words.” But that story will have to wait until next week, because I want to describe the continuing march of spectacular Piedmont flower displays, hoping you folks will make more outdoor excursions before the heat of the approaching summer becomes discouraging.

Two weeks ago I wrote that the mountain laurels of Occoneechee Mountain would be at peak a week early this year, and indeed they were.

Happily for Eno River Association folks who showed up for the Mother’s Day hike this past Sunday, that flower spectacle was continuing through a second week, and the laurel thickets lining the Brown Elfin Knob Trail were truly a sight to behold!

And now, the fields of beardtongue, Penstemon digitalis, out at Mason Farm are approaching their peak, another Piedmont flower spectacle for the next two weeks, not to be missed.

And though not naturally occurring in the Piedmont, the carnivorous-plants display behind the Totten Center at the N.C. Botanical Garden is unbelievable right now. Curator Chris Liloia was industrious this past fall and winter in rejuvenating that collection, and I’ve never seen it more spectacular.

Pitcher plants from all over the southeastern states are up in full leaf, accompanied by numerous species of native orchids and rare-plant species associated with those pitcher plants in the wild. Orchid flowers in every shade of pink and white provide lovely bouquets hovering above the sinister, insect-trapping sundews and flytraps. That whole array is a particular visual feast for the wildflower photographer. This show will be continuing for a couple more weeks, another not-to-miss spectacle.

Further afield is the 90-acre Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve north of Durham situated on that curious peninsular bend in the Eno River. Chapel Hill Town Council member and plant ecologist Ed Harrison is leading a fieldtrip there this Saturday to show off the Piedmont prairie restoration in progress ( for specifics). If the endangered wild blue indigo, Baptisia australis, has passed its peak you’ll catch two species of wild quinine (one very rare) and the rare smooth cone flower, Echinacea laevigata, coming into prime flowering.

Smooth coneflowers will be peaking soon at Penny’s Bend Piedmont prairie. Photo by Johnny Randall

The grand finale to this long spring spectacle of Piedmont flowers is the upcoming “Carolina Moonlight Gala” at the Botanical Garden on the full moon evening of Saturday, June 2. This is the Botanical Garden’s first-ever such spectacular social affair in a wonderful botanical setting.

In addition to food and beverages, viewing the gardens, music, dancing and the excitement of a silent auction, the gala will be an engaging fundraiser to support the ongoing conservation and educational programs of the Botanical Garden. Check it out ( and plan to have a great time while supporting the environment of our spectacular Piedmont.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Eulogy for Polk Place Persimmon

2012 May 10
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by Robert

By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

Flora has annually eulogized the university’s 200-plus-year-old “Polk Place Persimmon.” Now, during what I lament may be its final year on that sacred ground, I’ve asked gardening friend and persimmon tree devotee Bill Bracey to take up the pen this time around.

Bill and I enjoy weekly evening sit-downs beneath his 100-plus-year-old persimmon tree. Never a week goes by that we don’t comment on our old friend, the Polk Place Persimmon.

And never a week goes by that I don’t express my admiration to Bill for having read all seven volumes of Marcel Proust, the master of the long sentence. I challenged Bill to honor the Polk Place Persimmon with a description as if composed by Proust himself. I tip my hat to Bill for having met that challenge, and am joyous to share with Flora readers this year’s annual eulogy to our ancient old tree friend by Bill Bracey.

A dark, deeply ridged bark characterizes mature persimmon trees. Photo by Ken Moore

“The common persimmon, Diospyros (fire, or fruit, of the gods), this tree had a good PR team, or perhaps the taxonomist was thinking of Bill Smith’s persimmon pudding, virginiana, is an outlier of the generally tropical ebony family, gracing the margins of our woodlands and standing sentry in fields and pastures, left there by farmers who valued the fruit provided at no cost and minimal labor other than that to collect it, and locally best exemplified by a remnant of the original campus forest, the magnificent dying specimen on Polk Place, delightfully defying the bland martial symmetry of the willow and white oaks that line the east and west perimeters of that southern quad of the UNC campus, but condemned by its location in a desert of bricks and mortar and the wide green lawns that are the polyester of landscapes (although I do appreciate their utility for outdoor spring classes and Ultimate Frisbee games) to a life of frustrating celibacy, as the dioecious persimmon takes two to, you know, and this beautiful male with the characteristic awkward branching habit (which gave its kind a darker utility as a hanging tree) under which one spring not long ago I stood for one oneiric hour, captivated by the faintly audible rain of white bell-shaped flowers in a waning show of potential fecundity before any visible signs of the tree’s decline had registered, with branches fully leafed and distinctive deeply furrowed bark sturdy enough for a child to free-climb, this tree that lived its latter years in one hand clapping will soon leave the campus to lesser but more productive kin including the one just off the lanes Battle & Hooper, a civilly unioned female that each fall is laden with more golden-orange fruit than seems possible, which after ripening to the point of losing the astringency that defines astringency, and falling to the ground, is as sweet as any candy and a reason to steer any autumn amble beneath its branches, all the more as we are losing the patriarch of Polk Place, one of the last biological natural features that all the Carolina family have shared.

So, long live the Davie Poplar and what is left of the Noble Grove.”

Polk Place Persimmon has survived more than 200 years. Photo by Ken Moore

Don't dare taste persimmon fruit until it is golden-orange and soft to the touch! Photo by Ken Moore

A female persimmon flower depends on pollen from a male tree to produce fruit. Photo by Betsy Green Moyer

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Spectacular wildflowers in the Piedmont

2012 May 3
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By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

A friend visiting from the Carolina mountains inquired of some local folks about locations of spectacular wildflower displays here in the Piedmont. He was surprised by their response that the Piedmont doesn’t have any spectacular displays of wildflowers.

I didn’t have the opportunity to convince my friend otherwise because he was intent to be on his way on a two-week journey in pursuit of spectacular wildflower displays in the eastern coastal long leaf pine savannahs.

Before he left, however, I described locations of spectacular wildflowers here in our Piedmont.
For instance, there is the far-as-the-eye-can-see display of Dutchman’s breeches on the Flat River north of Durham in mid-March; spring beauties carpet the flood plains of the Eno River and New Hope Creek from late February through mid-April; and some of the fields at Mason Farm Biological Reserve are a sea of tall white-flowering Penstemons in mid-May. In late summer and early fall those same fields have spectacular displays of other wildflowers. Depending on the season, we have lots of spectacular wildflower areas here in the Piedmont!

Individual flowers of mountain laurel deserve a closer look. Photo by Ken Moore

I wanted to show my friend the spectacular mountain laurels,Kalmia latifolia, on Occoneechee Mountain near Hillsborough, but he was not interested in a plant so common around his home turf.

However, you local folks should welcome this spectacular mountain laurel display such a short drive away. The Occoneechee mountain laurel is usually at peak on Mother’s Day, but it’s early this year; now’s the time to visit.

The 2.2-mile Occoneechee Mountain loop trail begins at the western edge of the parking area and leisurely meanders around the western slope of the mountain, dominated by mature rock chestnut oaks, Quercus montana.

Along that path you’ll find flowering patches of fetterbush, Lyonia mariana, and deerberry, Vaccinium stamineum. If you’re observant you may spot a lone mountain laurel in the forest below you. That lone flowering specimen stands like a sentinel ahead of the endless thicket of mountain laurel you will find as you continue around to the north slopes.

You’ll find yourself dwarfed beneath a canopy of flowering laurel, and in places you’ll be surprised to see evergreen round leaves of galax, Galax aphylla, covering the ground beneath the laurel. You will feel like you are in the Carolina mountains. We’re fortunate to have a few locations like Occoneechee where small relict mountain-plant communities continue to survive on cool north river slopes following the last southern glacial period.

A sentinel mountain laurel announces a spectacular flower display farther beyond. Photo by Ken Moore

Pause for a while and take a closer look at some of those round, bowl-shaped laurel flowers. In some, the 10 dark, burgundy-red stamens are embedded in the petal surface. In older flowers, you will discover that the stamens are in an inverted curved position, having sprung upward when ripe, tossing pollen onto unsuspecting insect pollinators. If you’re clever, you may be able to get some of those embedded stamens to perform for you.

Make haste to get out this week if you want to enjoy this particular spectacular Piedmont wildflower display!

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

‘Curiously lurking amongst the grassy leaves’

2012 April 26
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By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

Legendary English gardener and writer Vita Sackville-West described spiderwort as “… a plant I like very much, sometimes called the Trinity Flower, owing to its three petals of a rich violet, curiously lurking amongst the grassy leaves.”

I love the notion of flowers “curiously lurking amongst the grassy leaves” because that’s exactly how I find them scattered about in my garden. I don’t remember planting one when I used to try being organized about gardening, but happily they freely self-seed, and I have them now scattered about the yard in both sunny and shady locations. Since they planted themselves I don’t have to be concerned about watering them.

A Carolina blue form of spiderwort lurking with the common blues at the N.C. Botanical Garden. Photo by Ken Moore

When they seem to have finished flowering and flop over during the heat of the summer, I simply cut the stems back and enjoy another flush of growth and flowering later in the season.

The one moving around my yard is most likely Tradescantia ohiensis, smooth spiderwort, with leaves having a somewhat whitish cast (glaucous) to them. The leaves immediately below the flower clusters are as wide as the stem leaves.
The name Trandescantia honors two notable English gardeners, the two John Tradescants, father and son. King Charles I sent the younger John Tradescant to Virginia in 1637 to gather all rarities of flowers, plants and shells. By that date the elder John Tradescant, the king’s gardener, was already growing many American plants in his London garden. Spiderworts were one of the earliest American plants transported back to England.

Sometimes seedling spiderworts produce brilliant purple-pink flowers. Photo by Ken Moore

Spiderwort seedlings possess an endless palette of blue and violet flowers. No two are ever quite alike, and often one finds some really special colors. A rosy-red color form is “curiously lurking amongst the grassy leaves” at the edge of my porch steps this year.

For hardcore Tar Heel fans, there are some Carolina blue color forms of spiderworts “lurking” amongst all the others in a showy bed behind the Totten Center at the N.C. Botanical Garden. That “Carolina Blue spiderwort” (my name for it) has been in that bed for several years. I hope the garden staff will someday propagate and offer for sale Tradescantia ‘Tar Heel Blue.’

Native Americans ate young spiderwort plants as greens in the spring. However, the oozy, sticky sap of a broken spiderwort stem makes such an idea unappealing to me. Root teas were considered effective for stomach ailments and root poultices were considered an effective cancer cure. I particularly like the description of spiderwort as one of the ingredients in a medicine for kidney troubles, “… requiring an accompanying prayer.” A prayer is probably a wise necessity with any herbal remedy.

Spiderworts are lovely morning attractions as they "lurk amongst" other plants. Photo by Ken Moore

Lack of medical expertise guides me in keeping my spiderworts out of the medicine cabinet and encouraging them to “curiously lurk” anywhere they may choose in my landscape.

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It’s all there

2012 April 19
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By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

With three parted leaves like the traditional shamrock, the wood-sorrels are calling out to us these days from sunny and shady locations.

Bright pink Oxalis rubra from Brazil naturalizes in lawns. Photo by Ken Moore

The most noticeable of the Oxalis species is O. rubra, which right now is making appearances in lawns about town. It’s a bright-pink flowered oxalis from Brazil that has naturalized in neighborhood yards.

We have a beautiful, shy native pink wood-sorrel, Oxalis violaceae, which you will occasionally discover while walking in local forests. Only a few flowers can be seen here and there, the real charm of this plant being the engaging clover-like leaf, which is tinged with a pale-purple coloring. I’d never seen it in the open until last week while walking the N.C. Botanical Garden’s Mason Farm Biological Reserve. There was quite a stand of it flowering profusely out in one of the recently burned fields. I could not help but think that like young children, those violet wood-sorrels had seized an opportunity to escape the nearby woodlands and frolic about in the sunny field.

Much more commonly observed about town is the small yellow-flowered Oxalis dillenii, southern yellow wood-sorrel. This is the one I remember from my childhood. I am delighted to discover it is the first plant described in the introduction of Doug Elliott’s Wildwoods Wisdom. Most likely out of print, Doug Elliott’s descriptions of nature’s creatures, including humans, are well worth finding a copy, whether from a library or purchased online as a used copy.

Large flowered yellow wood-sorrels are occasionally encountered in local forests. Photo by Ken Moore

This yellow wood-sorrel was the first wild plant Doug put in his mouth. His dad called it sour grass, and Doug frequently visited the little patch in his yard to sample those tart little green seedpods he called “pickles.”

That’s exactly how I remember them as a youngster – sneaking around beneath the shrubbery tasting those tart little “pickles,” and my mom searching for me to warn me about eating plants in the yard. You’ll see this small upright yellow wood-sorrel everywhere – in lawns, along sidewalks and sunny woodland borders and even at entrances to coffee shops.

Sometimes you may spot a variety of yellow wood-sorrel with larger yellow flowers. I’ve seen a few of them recently, brightening shaded forest floors.

Fruit, "pickles" of southern yellow wood-sorrel are a spicy treat. Photo by Ken Moore

Doug shares a wonderful story about seeing wood-sorrel while walking with his Canadian friend some years ago. His friend described gathering it by the basketful as a kid for his family to mix in with other salad greens. The flavor of those “sour pickles” served as a dressing. The traditional name for it in the north country is “It’s all there,” because the top of each of the three leaflets has two lobes for a total count of six, representing the six directions of north, south, east, west, sky and earth. “It’s all there,” and it’s nice to feel the completeness of being one with nature when encountering any of the wood-sorrels.

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Wild geraniums

2012 April 12
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By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

Cool, moist interludes during this early warm spring provide optimal conditions for a lingering presence of our wildflowers. Beginning to show up now in local forests are wild geraniums, with purple and pink flowers seeming to hover in the air above distinctive, deeply lobed leaves. The wild geranium, Geranium maculatum, is far more sophisticated, I think, than those popular brightly colored florist and bedding-plant geraniums, the Pelargonium species from much warmer climates.

Wild geranium flowers seem to hover above deeply lobed leaves. Photo by Ken Moore

This lovely wild geranium of mountain and Piedmont cove forests is sometimes called alumroot because of its described medicinal use as an astringent and septic. It should not, however, be confused with more commonly called alumroot, Heuchera americana, which has similar medicinal qualities.

Wild geranium is also more appropriately called cranesbill or storksbill. Geranium, in fact, means “crane.” The seed-bearing structure resembles a crane’s or stork’s long beak and serves a very specific function. There are five seeds at the base of the beak, and when the seeds are mature that beak splits into five segments and, one at a time, the individual seeds are catapulted up and forward as far as 30 feet away.

Aging leaves of Carolina cranesbill are tinged with red. Photo by Ken Moore

The seeds’ movement doesn’t stop there. Each seed has a little tail or awn that curls when dry and extends when wet, causing that little seed to continue to travel until it may eventually settle into a soil cavity with potential for germination and growth.

Jack Sanders (The Secrets of Wildflowers) poetically describes the seed’s movements in “Adventurers.”
Geranium seeds are a traveling lot,
First they fly, fired like a shot,
Then they crawl in search of a spot,
A nook or a cranny in which to squat
And settle a new geranium plot.

Wild geranium has a tiny weedy native cousin, Carolina cranesbill, Geranium carolinianum, which most folks will quickly extract from their gardens. I let it run rampant over my yard where my Welsh gardening friend, Sue Morgan, enjoys carefully stepping through un-mown sweeps of flowering weeds. She is particularly keen on the characteristic round, palmately dissected geranium leaves thrusting above lingering purple henbit, Lamium purpureum, and bird’s-eye speedwell, Veronica persica.

The tiny pink geranium flower often goes unnoticed, except to the keen eye of friend Sue, who is charmed by the “perfect miniature geranium flower.”

It takes a “closer look" to see the tiny geranium flower of weedy cranesbill. Photo by Ken Moore

A “closer look” at this diminutive wild geranium will unveil the beauty found in red tinges of the aging leaves and the persistent sepals surrounding the five dark seeds at the base of the beak-like center.

Though friend Sue doesn’t allow such freedom to flowering weeds in her garden, she’s happy to view them in my yard.
As I always suggest, before you pull it up, take a closer look and you may find hidden beauty there.

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Lowly, lovely cinquefoil

2012 April 5
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By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

It is so interesting to watch the unfolding of the new landscape slowly emerging around the N.C. Botanical Garden’s new building complex. While I’ve heard comments that the new gardens are taking too long to create, I commend the Garden staff for being so thoughtful and not rushing into what will be a most engaging and instructional future garden.

Meanwhile, the old gardens surrounding the Totten Center are mature and absolutely exploding with horticultural beauty and botanical interest. The sweeps of golden ragwort and blue phlox in the shade garden are breathtaking, and watching children discovering the emerging flowers and leaves in the carnivorous plant beds is a joy to behold.

Bright-yellow flowers add sparkle to the five parted leaves of cinquefoil in spring and later in the summer. Photo by Ken Moore

It is noteworthy that specimens showing up in the new gardens represent the diversity of plants that occur naturally all around us in the Carolina Piedmont.

Most of those plants result from the Garden’s active propagation program. Planning ahead, keen staff members carefully collected seed of dozens of local Piedmont species, and now there are lots of plants for display and testing. Some of them will become choice garden plants, some may become a future Wildflower of the Year and some few may become select cultivars. We all love those fancy-named cultivars like goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, “Fireworks,” and wild indigo, Baptisia, “Carolina Moonlight,” both special selections from the Garden.

One of my favorites is a plant rescued years ago from a residential construction site. It has proven to be a dependable, low groundcover that thrives in heat, drought, sun and shade. Common cinquefoil (meaning five fingers, referring to the five leaf segments), Potentilla simplex, serves as a well-behaved living green mulch supporting other perennials in the garden.

Trailing cinquefoil forms a living green mulch protecting other perennials in the garden. Photo by Ken Moore

In The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, longtime Connecticut resident and newspaper editor, the author seems as enthusiastic as I am about cinquefoils. He describes cinquefoils as “a rose by another name.”

I wholeheartedly agree with him that “Cinquefoils are lowly but lovely flowers. … These dry-earth cinquefoils are nature’s way of covering, even decorating, the more barren parts of our landscape. Like cacti, they spring from harsh, barren soils. As we allow more of the good topsoil to be eroded or scraped away, the cinquefoils are bound to become even more common. They are among those opportunistic creatures of nature that thrive on our inability to handle our environment carefully.”

Enough said – go search out the several areas in the new gardens where keen curators, particularly Chris Liloia and Sally Heiney, are encouraging and planting this lowly, lovely native groundcover.

Jack Sanders is also a poet, and I have to share his poem about cinquefoils:
The lowly cinquefoil is a rose.
A fact that any botanist knows.
Though it seems to me a mystery
How such a lowly plant can be
Sibling to a flower that grows
As glorious as a garden rose.
The bigger question does remain:
How you pronounce that funny name?
Does it ‘sink’ or does it ‘sank’
As it wanders up the bank?
And as it creeps across the soil
What, pray tell, does it foil?

How I wish I had composed that!

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.