Heat and humidity drove my husband and me to the mountains in late August. We prefer the ski slopes when they are empty of people and snow. The mountains were even hotter than I remember, but still it was relaxing to go bear and butterfly hunting with a camera.
“You can’t get there from here,” fit this trip just about right. Our destination, a lodge atop a northern Georgia mountain, took hours to reach. Interstates and state byways gave way to curvy mountain roads where I always seemed to be on the drop-off, no guardrail, side of the road. Nevertheless, the scenery was spectacular, even for this acrophobic.
The wildflowers at the lodge were into their full fall beauty. Joe Pye Weed, mountain mint, and goldenrod were all in glorious color and so were the butterflies flitting everywhere. The garden was alive with butterflies. This particularly beautiful butterfly, a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) loved the goldenrod.
Even the herb garden still had some life in it. I especially liked the painted rocks used to label the plants. This is something I plan to use in my garden. Feel free to usurp the idea, too.
Husband and I visited a state park a mile from the lodge and canoed around the small lake. There I saw one of our most beautiful native trees already putting on its fall raiment ahead of all the other trees surrounding the lakeside.
Since fall is the perfect time to plant trees, consider this underutilized special native, the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). It is a slow growing tree. Grow it on the lean side in part shade with little watering unless the weather is droughty. Wild growing trees at the edges of woods are usually much smaller than their neighbors, typically topping off at twenty-five to thirty feet. Although it can eventually reach 40-60 feet in its best site, sourwood seldom reaches these giant peaks, so is suited for small yards.
Knowing where a native tree flourishes is a good way to figure out just where to site it in your garden. Since it grows in mountainous regions, it likes thin, fast-draining soil with a layer of woodsy humus on top.
It is an “Edge” tree, found naturally at the perimeter of woodlands. You can also see it in hilly areas along southern interstates, which should mean it would be well suited as a street tree.
It blooms in the spring, glistens in green sweeps in the summer, and turns a brilliant shade of bright yellow-orange-red in the fall. The flowers are visited by busy bees, which gorge themselves on the nectar, making honey loved by bees and people alike.
Do not be fooled into giving this tree a drink when the leaves hang from its limbs. The leaves always hang from the limbs. This is part of its charm. Check the soil to know when to soak it.
This tree, sometimes called Lily-of-the-valley tree, won’t invade your entire garden spaces like its namesake often can do. Its droops of flowers look surprisingly like the little perennial ground cover blossoms. Fragrance, too, is sweet and floats on the breeze.
Sourwood, named for the taste of its leaves, is a late spring bloomer and an early fall leaf color changer, which really makes it stand out in the woodlands and landscapes, tossing out color when other trees are coated in green. Even when it is green, it is a special tree.
The summer leaves are shiny as a polished Granny Smith apple and show to beautiful advantage on down swept branches. Although this tree is native to Eastern hills and mountains, from southern Ohio and Pennsylvania south to the flatlands of Florida and west to Louisiana, check with your State’s University Extension Service Agent or local Master Gardeners to see if this tree will thrive in your area. It is rated for USDA Zones (5)6-9a. In the warmer climates, give it more shade.
We came home, after visiting my brother and sister-in-law in North Carolina, rejuvenated and ready to tackle some mountainous garden chores here at home. Even though the daylight hours have shortened, signaling fall, the heat has remained on. We won’t be planting trees for some time.
All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.
By Ron Harrison, Ph.D., Entomologist and Orkin Technical Services Director
Photographs courtesy of Orkin
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