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Let nature help you garden

2012 August 23

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

I love the new landscaping around the three buildings of the N.C. Botanical Garden’s visitor education center. Garden staff are committed to planting that new landscape with native species that occur in Orange or adjacent counties. That means that all the specimen plants and sweeps of plants that are there are species of plants that we would find growing along roadsides and in local fields and forests.

Nature planted the beautiful dwarf partridge pea ground cover for the botanical garden entrance sign. PHOTO BY KEN MOORE

That landscape of local wild plants overflows along the parking area and onto the adjacent roadside and forest edges. Every day I visit I am impressed by how so many taken-for-granted and often-considered weed natives, like poke and dog fennel, become beautiful garden specimens or appealing masses when taken out of their wild context.

Not only do staff curators Amanda Mixon, Chris Liloia and Sally Heiney deliberately place these locally wild subjects, they judiciously and selectively let thrive many plants placed by nature’s wisdom.

Such is the planting of the emerald-green ground cover from which the botanical garden’s entrance sign seems to arise as from a green cloud. A sweep of a sensitive plant, Cassia* nictitans, a common field annual in the pea family, was carefully sown around that sign by nature.

Of course, that natural planting is not completely maintenance-free – nothing is. To achieve various effects here and there, nature’s exuberance does require massaging from time to time. According to Sally, the keeper of the entrance-sign roadside, she has “edited” (Sally’s honorary title for her weekly weeding volunteers is the Landscape Editors) the area, but just occasionally this entire season.

I prefer to call this lush green ground cover dwarf partridge pea because it is a diminutive cousin of larger, closely related partridge pea, Cassia fasciculata.

Flowers of common partridge pea are large enough to be showy. PHOTO BY KEN MOORE

The flattened bean pods of both species contain seeds that are a favorite food for bobwhite quail, of which we have way too few. The pinnately compound, fern-like foliage is sometimes browsed by deer, of which we have way too many. This valuable native plant of fields and other disturbed sites also serves as a larval host for several butterfly species.

The larger partridge pea is showing off now in some of the fields of Mason Farm, though not as spectacularly as in some past years. Typical of annuals, population size varies from year to year, depending upon natural invasion by perennial plants and/or lack of natural or human-caused disturbances.

Most likely that superb dwarf partridge pea ground cover at the garden entrance won’t be quite so exuberant next year. Gardening with nature is like that – no two years are ever the same!

You have to take a very close look to see the flowers of dwarf partridge pea. PHOTO BY KEN MOORE

During the next couple of weeks you can take a closer look at both partridge peas at the botanical garden entrance drive – the dwarf is on the right, beneath the sign, and the big one is on the left along the footpath.

And thank you, Mixon, Chris and Sally for bringing so many of our local natives up close for our appreciation.

There are so many unusual local natives newly displayed around the visitor center that I am hoping to have nursery manager Matt Gocke describe more of them in Flora next week.

*For the taxonomic purist, Cassia is now officially Chamaecrista.

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

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